[Editorial] How The US Fund Cuts Due to War Affect Science and All Of Us
By on July 27th, 2011

Lost jobs, growing fuel prices and rising public discontent is the scene in the US as far as the economy is concerned. Funds are short in all aspects of life, whether it concerns fuel prices (government subsidy), the education sector or business. The dollar falling against the Euro, or even the Indian Rupee, mirrors the sorry state of affairs. The worst hit, it seems, is the science sector, which has been left crippled by a spate of fund cuts across almost all disciplines. The reason for this: War.

The “War On Terror”

Yes, the American long drawn War on Terror’ is acting like a very effective pipe draining monetary resources from all other aspects of governance and life. An estimated $4 trillion has been spent on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq (sorry for not using the label War on Terror’). The achievements have been few and too far apart in time. The most significant achievement in the eyes of the public is the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, who, experts believe, wasn’t very active anyway in the terror network and the success was little more than symbolic. Al Qaeda has the same reach and structure as it had just before Bin Laden’s death. If anything, the martyrdom’ of Bin Laden (as it is viewed in many parts of the Islamic world) has helped Al Qaeda gain more recruits without resorting to covert recruitment procedures. Not to mention, the operation has undermined the relations between Pakistan and the US.

Victims No. 1

Science has had to suffer a lot, as this foolish carnage was unfolding. The most notable victim has been the James Webb Space Telescope. Recently, we reported the plans to scrap the successor of Hubble the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and once Hubble completes its lifetime in 2014, there will be no eye in space in the visible range of the spectrum with which we will be able to peer deep into the cosmos.

What Next : Hubble to the left. James Webb on the right. Or is it?

The giant telescope, which would make Hubble look like a pair of binoculars, was set to replace both Hubble and Spitzer in one stroke. Spitzer, which observes in the infra-red frequencies, is still operational and is expected to outlast Hubble. The fund cut by the Appropriations Sub-committee is bound to render astrophysics blind for, at least, the decade.

Victim No. 2

There has been other victims with lower profiles. We had also told you about the ATA (Allen Telescope Array) of SETI put out of operation due to the lack of funds. It is a widespread misconception that SETI’s only job is the search for extra-terrestrials. The ATA was being used for much more than intercepting intelligent radio signals from space, like looking at radio signals originating from very strong radio-sources like Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN’s) and looking at transient radio-sources. This would be extremely useful for studying how quasars truly operate. Further, looking at any active radiation source in many wavelengths is of the utmost essence in observational astronomy.

Victim No. 3

Arguably, the best telescope is The Chandra X-Ray Telescope (no, it’s not the Hubble). Orbiting the Earth, high above the atmosphere, it captures stunning images in the X-Ray band. The X-Ray band of radiation is notoriously difficult to capture on film. The primary reason for this is the extremely high penetrating power of X-Rays; lenses made of glass are useless. The mirrors used to focus a parallel beam of X-Ray radiation need to be at glancing angles (about a degree or so) to the direction of radiation. Further, the mirrors need to be coated with pure gold. Both these factors contribute to increased expenses, the former being responsible for the need of large mirror sheets and the latter being responsible for the obvious reasons. The question is what next? What after Chandra? With the recent spate, there is real worry about the maintenance and succession to the premier X-Ray Telescope.

Victim No. 4

The search for exotic gravitational waves is also expected to take a hit. The existing detector, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna or LISA, is capable of detecting a gravitational wave emanating from a powerful astronomical event in the cosmological vicinity the moment it passes Earth. The problem is the back-up observations. This needs to be followed up by observations in the electromagnetic spectrum, which will be impossible given that Hubble will not have a successor and radio telescopes on land are also in trouble. In other words, a goldmine of observations (say, LISA detects gravitational wave after gravitational wave) will be going to waste given that there is no back-up observation. LISA will be effectively out of operation.

What is there to show for this? The two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, don’t have stable governments. The Taliban has regrouped in Afghanistan and the Iraqis are discontent. Their economy is in shambles; communication and power lines are still not restored in many parts. Trade in the countries, especially in Iraq, has been permanently disfigured. Worst of all, terror cells are still active in other parts of the world and pose just as grave a threat. A 9/11 rerun seems unlikely, but 9/11 was unlikely to begin with.

We won! That's the correct answer! Right?

In the inevitable tug-of-war for monetary resources amongst the disciplines and top institutes, only those fields, promising to deliver relevant and immediately useful results, will have the luxury of monetary cushioning. Stem cell research, the projected next big thing in medicine, may have suffered long due to various sanctions by the Catholic Church and other religious bigots, ignorant of scientific methods and of the promises it holds, but it may have to suffer more due to the cuts. Though this field shouldn’t be in as dire a strait as the astronomy community, it may well find itself short-changed.

Scissors and Rocks – Papers missing

Even as we predict that presently relevant fields will be suffering the least, fields such as energy and environmental sciences may be amongst the worst victims. In the US, funding for studies in energy efficiency and renewable resources could be slashed by as much as 27-28 %, projecting a grim picture for the energy sector, the US and the future in fifty years. Perhaps no sector is as attached to the public security and well-being as this one. It need hardly be mentioned that lack of political consensus amongst the US Parliament on issues of climate change will put climate sciences on the back-burner.

Science, in general, is not a quick, open-and-shut case. It is a long drawn process, where even promising research insights might ultimately deliver nothing. Patience and perseverance are not only virtues, they are essential traits. It is not a self-funding process, either.

The American fund cuts will allow Europe to take the forefront in cutting-edge research in the world. They already have the upper hand in particle physics, with the LHC beating Fermilab (which will be closed down this November) hands down. They might soon take over in Astronomy and material sciences.

The Last Word

It can be debated whether America truly won the space race. For all you know, Soyuz is still in service, keeping a low-profile and getting its intended work done. After the end of the Space Shuttle Program, Soyuz becomes all the more indispensible. It has long been the most reliable, most cost-effective way to transport people in space. While it was initially marred by deaths of cosmonauts, while ferrying them to and from the Mir Space Station, it is now used as a reliable emergency space vehicle of the International Space Station, with one being permanently docked there. In space, while ambition is a necessary quality, being effective counts for more. That’s more than what could be said for the space shuttle program.

Atlantis on the left, Soyuz on the right. Guess who won!

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the War on Terror’ is not a war that can be won, but just sustained. Great amounts of political speculations can be made on this issue, but we’ll leave that out of this present article. It seems that terrorists might have indeed won the war by not letting the US win easy.

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.

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