As a recipient of research funding from the US government, I sometimes think about how this resource should be allocated. Wikipedia claims that for most developed countries, research funding amounts to 1.5% to 3% of GDP, so we are talking about a lot of money here. Appropriate focusing of this funding can change the world — and it already has, of course, many times. (Just to be clear: for 9 months out of each year my salary is paid by the state of Utah. However, my group operates on federal grant money typically exceeding my salary by several times.)
The research funding allocation problem is interesting because it’s not so much a matter of determining the most pressing needs, but of determining which important research areas are not being addressed adequately by the private sector. Corporations’ responsibility to their shareholders makes them myopic, so there are many such areas.
My premise in this post is that at some point, something is going to get us. By “us” I mean the human race and by “get” I mean utterly kill, or close enough. I don’t think this is an unreasonably paranoid view: the solar system has a rich history of delivering very big rocks to us and we seem to be doing a perfectly good job in creating our own threats to continued existence. Perhaps I should not have watched “Fail Safe” the other night.
What does this have to do with research funding? It means that some significant fraction of our research money (25%, for example) should be devoted to work on the critical path to creation of sustainable off-Earth colonies. In the long run, creating these colonies is literally the only thing that matters. Clearly, we cannot build them right now. So what are the missing technologies? Obvious candidates include: surviving or avoiding microgravity, sophisticated and reliable automation, stable closed ecosystem design, and reliable energy sources. I’m not trying to say anything new about space exploration; the point is just that we’re wasting valuable time. The current under-focused approach to research funding is not going to give the human race a Plan B anytime soon.
How do we determine the specific topics to work on? One option is to ask the NAS, NAE, and NRC, who would each spend two or three years forming committees and writing reports. This is a fine idea, but boring. We could also run some workshops where various experts from government, industry, and academia get together and talk. Again it’s hard to stifle a yawn; no matter how good the intentions, somehow these kinds of events do not seem conducive to innovative and critical thinking. A better idea might be for small groups of people to self-organize and start doing the work. As researchers we get a large amount of autonomy and surely this can be bent towards longer-term, more meaningful goals than we typically aim for.
How would my job change if tomorrow I decided to devote all of my efforts towards minimizing the time remaining until we can build a self-sustaining colony on the Moon or Mars? At least in broad terms, probably not much! It doesn’t really matter where these colonies are or what form they take: they’re going to need a huge amount of embedded software to sustain their existence and it had better work really well. What, did you think I was going to end this post realizing I need to change jobs?