- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

Financing science

In response to S. Fred Singer’s comments (“Human exploration of Mars,” Op-Ed, Friday), I would say the following: Each of his questions is appropriate for a science-fiction book and, perhaps, textbooks but horrible for tax dollars.

Let me put it this way: Knowing the answers to each of the questions would not produce one direct benefit to mankind. (I don’t want to fund the exploration of the “mystery of the origin of the two moons of Mars.”) I readily admit that the process of discovery of the answers may produce an indirect benefit, but in only the most expensive approach conceivable. The lunar programs of the past 40 years are proof of this. Who would argue that moon rocks in and of themselves are of real value to anybody except as a novelty? Did knowing their composition save a life or prevent a war or end starvation?

Clearly, the spending of trillions to learn how to go get the moon rocks has furthered science, but at a very, very expensive price. So, why not decide as a government and a citizenry what we need or want from our technology dollar and go there directly? Getting to Teflon, robotics, heat-resistant materials, freeze-dried foods and a list of other space-derived technologies would be a lot cheaper if we simply discovered them directly rather than stumbling on them along the trillion-dollar pathway to Mars and its moons.

And why are some of us obsessed with the possible presence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? This is pure indulgence on the part of starry-eyed scientists who want serious funding for their storybook fantasies. If intelligent life is there and is any more intelligent than we, wouldn’t they know how to contact us? If they are out there and no more intelligent than we are, why spend trillions to find out? In either case, the effort is not worth the money when there are so many uncharted domains here on Earth that could yield significant and immediate benefits to mankind.

For example, based on continued discoveries here on Earth, there quite probably are undiscovered phenomena under the ocean surface that could significantly aid research biologists and pharmaceutical researchers — to cure diseases such as cancer. The National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration (NOAA) operates an Undersea Research Program that “supports an interdisciplinary array of experts in researching gas hydrate ecosystems and their extraordinary potential as a source of bio-products.” Or, how about “minimallyinvasivesensing technologies, bioinformatics and disease intervention strategies” from the National Cancer Institute — in conjunction with NASA? This idea is neither new nor harebrained (see https://nasa-nci.arc.nasa.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=nasanci.main for details, as an example).

Quite simply, I want my research tax dollar spent on directly producing benefits to mankind, not on indirect curiosity ventures that will take 30-plus years to produce a side benefit.



Fourth down for the Bowl Championship Series

Sunday night’s Bowl Championship Series college football “title” game (“Tigers win Sugar Bowl to clinch national title,” Sports, yesterday) may have been one of the most irrelevant sports championships in the last decade. While fans clamored for a playoff, the Louisiana State University/Oklahoma game embodied an anticlimactic contest played out to validate a computer formula.

Regarding the game itself, it is hard to imagine much interest in the Sugar Bowl outside the two states represented and the diehard fans who have not yet succumbed to bitterness. The country already knew that the sportswriters were going to give their trophy to the University of Southern California. Further, how could this be a true championship game when one of the parties did not even win its conference?

Sadly, a playoff format for college football remains highly unlikely. The big conferences have no financial incentive to change a setup that rewards them so nicely (it’s like counting on legislators to change electoral law). Many, including the coaches, also argue that the students cannot be made to play any more games. Yet this problem could easily be overcome by eliminating those early season nonconference cupcake games.

Maybe the entire situation is the fans’ fault. Consider major league baseball, when the players strike, the spectators stop showingup.Despitethe LSU/USC conundrum, even Dionne Warwick could predict that fans will show up at stadiums in Tennessee and Michigan in 2004 by the hundreds of thousands. In continuing to support college football, the BCS is maintained by default.

Ultimately, however, I may be missing the entire point. Maybe a college championship should be allowed to be shared. The BCS defies the convention of a playoff and after all, isn’t that what college trains young men and women to do, challenge convention?


Alexandria, Va.

How safe are we?

Regarding the recent increased security alert (“Nation placed on ‘high’ alert,” Page 1, Dec. 22), it would appear that America’s focus has been primarily on airlines and airport security in the hopes of staving off another September 11-type attack. One would hope that the “intelligence chatter” and leads that are coming in to the Department of Homeland Securityfrom”reliable sources” are not part of a larger disinformation campaign hatched by al Qaeda operatives as a red herring.

Given al Qaeda’s international reach, formidable network of alliances and financial backing, it is not inconceivable for someone such as Osama bin Laden to launch a propaganda juggernaut (instead of hijacked airplanes) by leveraging his support network and disseminating propaganda in order to capitalize on the fear of an already besieged public.

Contrary to the Bush administration’s belief that another aerial assault is around the corner, I believe that the terror will not be unleashed from the skies, nor will the enemy try to enter through airport gates or border crossings in Canada or Mexico. Al Qaeda does not need to go to elaborate means of foiling the security measures President Bush has put into place. The terrorists have already landed, they have been on North American soil for many months, if not years, and are waiting and ready, given the opportunity, to strike at America’s greatest vulnerability — its people and their daily way of life.

Unlike two years ago, the next attack will come with the assistance of other domestic religious militant groups and impact the lives and routines that Americans take for granted.

What will America do when a half dozen McDonald’s are bombed in several cities and its children start becoming the innocent casualties at home instead of abroad? Bringing body bags back from a military campaign in Iraq or Afghanistan is one thing, smelling the destruction (as anyone in New York City will attest) in one’s own back yard, so to speak, lasts a lifetime and is not easily forgotten.

If al Qaeda resorts to suicide bombers on American soil, it will be unbearable and beyond comprehension for many Americans. Many Israelis have for years struggled to understand the senselessness of killing civilians. But terror’s purpose is exactly that: to victimize as many innocent lives as possible. What better way for al Qaeda to do this than by bringing the threat of terror and disruption of daily life to Americans? One wonders what Mr. Bush’s response will be like on home turf and how long Americans will be able to bear even further curtailments of civil liberties, once full martial law is imposed.

America’s greatest challenges are yet to be faced when the war on terrorism is fought on American soil and not on some desert thousands of miles away. The Bush administration’s policy of expending resources and intelligence to fight terror abroad (Afghanistan and Iraq) may have compromised America more than ever before. Perhaps it is not too late to redirect those resources and look into our own back yard in the hopes of uncovering the dangers that lie within, before the unthinkable becomes reality.


Toronto, Canada

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