Following The Unmarked Path

The title of the piece says it all: Our Incredible Shrinking Curiosity. A science writer addresses the fact that basic scientific research is dieing in the US, to the detriment of us all.

But the U.S. scientific enterprise is riddled with evidence that Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research — the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn’t know exactly where it’s going but so often leads to big payoffs. In discipline after discipline, the demand for specific products, profits or outcomes — "deliverables," in the parlance of government — has become the dominant force driving research agendas. Instead of being exploratory and expansive, science — especially in the wake of 9/11 — seems increasingly delimited and defensive.

None of this is surprising. We have national "leaders" who cherry pick the little bits of science they need to back up their political goals and ignore the rest. Scientists who dare speak something other than the company line are isolated and stripped of any government funding. On top of all that, many of our "leaders" also support efforts to dumb down science education with mysticism and label those who object as "anti-religion" or worse.

And this is the result:

Crouched today in a defensive posture, we are suffering from a lack of confidence and a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly into the unknown. Equally important, we seem to have forgotten that many good things come just from being open to them, without a formed idea of what they are or how they should come out. We are losing, in short, one of the oldest traditions in science: to simply observe, almost monk-like, with an open mind and without a plan.

An "open mind". What a wonderful thing to possess!