Saturday, April 02, 2005

Are you guys trying to become irrelevant?

I was reading Slashdot during one of my study breaks when I came across this article. Basically, DARPA, the research arm of the pentagon, is cutting its funding for open ended research in favor of more focused research with short term goals. For those of you unaware of DARPA, the most visible success was the invention of the internet. Their open ended research has yielded massive amounts of technological innovation which then crossed over into the civilian world and helped this country maintain its technological dominance.

This shift in funding isn't an isolated incident either. Corporate funding for research has also been shifting from the kind of open ended scientific research that could take a decade to pay off to short term projects that pay off in a few quarters. I imagine some people are wondering why this matters. Well, simply put, you're handing your technological dominance over to the Europeans and Asians on a silver platter by letting the bottom line dictate where research money goes. While short term research pays off faster, it does not create anything new. The kind of radical ideas, like the Internet, that end up shaping the future come from long term open ended research. You find a couple of really talented people, you give them money and leave them alone. Every once in a while you check on them every once in a while to make sure they're remembering to eat and shower. That's what DARPA used to do. So did formerly great American institutions like Bell Labs, HP and Xerox.

The Europeans still fund lots of basic research and Asian countries, particularly India, Japan, China and Korea are increasing the strength of their academic institutions. Incidentally, the increased barriers to immigration you've been throwing up are helping them by keeping the foreigners who populate your science and engineering programs at home. If they end up holding the patents to the next great thing while American research groups are still looking at the ground in front of their feet, there goes your dominance. Personally, It doesn't make a difference to me who is in charge. I just don't see why anyone would willingly take themselves out of the race. Plus I don't want to have to learn another language just so I can go somewhere else to do good research.

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