Thursday, November 4, 2010

Technology Winners and Losers from the Mid-Term Elections

The people have spoken.  But what the people have said is a little harder to understand.  Imagine a room of ten thousand people who on the count of three are urged to shout out their favorite program for technology funding.  The resulting noise from the diverse answers would be hard to decipher.   The only thing of which we can be certain is that the emphasis will change.  So what are some of the potential winners and losers in the next couple of years?  What government funding is likely to get enhanced or reduced as the centers of political power realign once again in Washington, DC?  Here's a few of my predictions:

The Winners:

  1. Defense and weapons systems.  
  2. Materials technologies that drive the electronics industry
  3. Oil exploration technology
  4. Clean coal
  5. The National Labs (again, with a focus on defense)
  6. Pharmaceutical research
The Losers:

  1. Stem cell research
  2. Alternative energy sources
  3. Climate research
  4. NASA
  5. Energy efficiency
The shifts in emphasis every two to four years play havoc on meaningful progress towards any research goals.  Most of these research programs are based in universities and National Labs.  Proposing and funding a program can take years.  Staffing with faculty and post-docs can take almost as long.  By the time a program gets set up and gains some momentum, it can find itself running out of gas during even the first refunding cycle.  We are constantly sub-optimized to progress as far and as fast as we can.  In a sense, everyone loses from the short-term reordering of research priorities.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, nor should any particular line of research be immune from changes in priorities.  Still, the need to achieve a minimum level of continuity - perhaps a decade - should be factored into setting research objectives.  Our future depends on it.

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