Dorky Poll: Three Beeeeellion Dollars

Regular commenter Johan Larson writes with a suggested blog topic:

The Human Genome Project (yes, you have to pronounce those capitals) cost about $3 billion. If $3 billion were yours to spend on scientific research, how would you spend the money?

That’s a great question, and a great topic for a Dorky Poll. I’ll narrow my response a little, because if I had to choose from all areas of science, it’s a no-brainer to throw all the money at public health– eradication of malaria, cures for major diseases, etc. For the sake of variety, let’s restrict it to your own particular subfield, so, for example, how would I spend three billion dollars on physics?

Well, I wouldn’t spend it on particle accelerators.

I always think of this sort of question as having a “desert island” sort of component, where the money I’m doling out will be the only money being spent on the field in question. In that case, I think the important thing is to spend the money where it will do the most good, not just for science, but for society at large.

Particle accelerators are great, and all, but is discovering the Higgs Boson going to materially improve the lives of anyone other than the heads of the collaboration that makes the first discovery and gets the Nobel? Not really.

If I had three billion dollars to throw at a single area of physics, I’d probably go for high-temperature superconductivity. It’s a phenomenon that’s still not understood all that well, and the potential impact is huge. If somebody could find a way to make mass quantities of material that superconducts at or near room temperature, that would be one of the most revolutionary physics developments since the transistor.

That’s a project worth funding.

The runner-up would be quantum information technology, just because it’s so darn cool.

So, what would you spend three billion dollars on?

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    February 20, 2008

    It’s hard to disagree with your first choice. However, there is more than the cool factor for quantum information technology. In view of the Supreme Court refusing to hear the appeal of the ACLU re: domestic eavesdropping (see the Quantum Pontiff’s post from yesterday), I’d say that practical quantum cryptography as a goal has increased in importance, particularly for people outside the US. As Dave points out, you would know if the NSA was listening to your quantum encrypted conversation (the reason why the suit was dismissed was because the plaintiffs could not prove specifically that their communications were being wiretapped).

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurdsson
    February 20, 2008

    As a one time cash donation or as a line item within ongoing funding?

    If the former, I’d use it as an endowment fund, figuring on annual current dollar income of about $100 million, and I would use that to fund ~ 500-1000 individual PI grants in the physical sciences, spread across all fields, per year in perpetuity.

    If the latter, I would split it between a gravitational radiation detector in spaaaace and a terrestrial planet finder mission and make a lot of engineers happy for a few years with deferred gratification for the scientists.
    A 10m class optical/infrared space telescope would be nice, but it can’t be done currently for that little money.

  3. #3 Skwid
    February 20, 2008

    A 10m class optical/infrared space telescope would be nice, but it can’t be done currently for that little money.

    Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we have a delivery vehicle capable of launching something that big right now, which takes it beyond “that little money” territory into just flat “can’t be done currently.”

  4. #4 J. Slaunwhite
    February 20, 2008

    No accelerators? Ouch! *sheds tears*

    But what if the accelerator was built using high-Tc superconductors?

    Slightly more seriously, if the criteria is to make a huge impact on “not just science, but for society at large”, then why not spend it refining silicon materials processing techniques like x-ray lithography and silicon doping? Exploring high-Tc superconductors isn’t out of the question for this goal either. We’ve already seen that have smaller, more powerful microchips can have a huge impact. It’s pausible that driving them even smaller would produce just as much social benefit.

  5. #5 John Novak
    February 20, 2008

    Screw that. It’s national Engineers Week, which is why the National Engineering Academy came out with their (IMO rather anemic) list of imperial directives on Monday.

    Give me three billion dollars for grand engineering challenges, we’ll talk.

  6. #6 Brad Holden
    February 20, 2008

    To answer the question above about launching a 10 meter telescope, the lift vehicles exist. The key is that the mirror is launched folded up and then deploys in space. Apparently, the DoD has been doing this for years.

  7. #7 blf
    February 20, 2008

    A helluva night in the pub? ;-)

    I’m not sure public health is the only no-brainer; the other no-brainer is not unrelated to John’s point: Low-to-no environmental impact technologies, and reversing or mitigating the impacts which have occurred.

  8. #8 William Hyde
    February 20, 2008

    Observation of the Earth.

    At a conference some years ago, a climate modeller was asked what single thing he needed to most improve his models. Most of the audience, I suspect, was expecting some response like “faster computers” (I was, anyway) but he said “more and better observations”.

    The amazing success of TRMM (Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission) – for example, this: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/a000000/a003200/a003283/wilma19_print.0275.tif though such a picture only gives the barest indication of TRMM’s scientific importance – shows us how much more we could get from space (and TRMM was an unconscionable 20 years from concept to launch).

    The motivation for TRMM, by the way, was originally the better understanding of Arctic climates. It’s all connected.

    But even Earthbound observations suffer badly from lack of cash. Tropical glaciers are an important indicator of climate change. At a seminar I was attending a year or so ago a plot of precipitation/temperature data on one such glacier stopped in 2002. Why? No money to continue the observations. That is not crucial in itself, but multiply such instances a thousandfold. (TRMM works only over the oceans.)

    And what we know about the atmosphere and land surface is like the complete Oxford dictionary vs one including only “Aa to Ab” compared to what we know about the oceans. Round up half a dozen good oceanographers and, even without considering satellite work, I’m sure they could set up a useful program to spend three billion over ten years.

    Three billion? Even among the scientists I know personally I could select half a dozen who would work wonders with a hundred million each.

    As for me, all I need are faster computers.
    And a new brain, for that matter.

    William Hyde

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    February 20, 2008

    Lithium-ion batteries that are dirt cheap to produce. That would open up the market for hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

    And clean water (public health).

  10. #10 emeris
    February 20, 2008

    Manhattan Project style fusion research

  11. #11 Johan Larson
    February 21, 2008

    If I’m spending the money in science, I’d spend it on oceanography, too. Start with a radar-based map at one-metre resolution. Then a series of deep-ocean missions. Five-year missions, perhaps? To explore strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations? (OK, maybe not that last part.)

    If I’m spending the money in my own field, computing, I think I would tackle computer security. Here I suspect we have the technology to build a more secure email system, and the problem is the transition hurdle. For a billion dollars I could persuade the major players to move to something better, and the rest of the field would follow. (Or we could keep going, fighting spam forever.)

    The second billion would be for credit card security; modern credit cards have essentially none, particularly for not-in-person transactions. I suspect somewhere along the way we are headed for the mother of all credit card frauds online, something big enough to rock our banking system. Spend the money publicizing just how easy it is to commit credit card fraud, and heckle the bankers into adopting something better.

    A third billion? Build an infrastructure for renting spare capacity in home PC and game boxes, sort of like the zombie networks, but legitimately. Be sure to give the home users full control over what’s going on, and a worthwhile cut of the proceeds. Part of the money should go to a campaign using gifted comics making wicked fun of folks who are letting their machines be zombies for free.

    Hmm, having written all of this, I see I have spent the money more on technology and marketing than on science. But then I am an engineer, so I forgive myself.

  12. #12 Peter Morgan
    February 21, 2008

    I’d spend it all (and much more) on R&D into reducing the environmental impact of existing technology. I believe it is because this research typically lags behind fundamental research by up to 50 years that the public is increasingly reluctant to fund more fundamental research that will have undesirable consequences that will only be recognized and belatedly managed 50 years later.
    The effects of this research on public health (endemic chemical contaminations of many different kinds and steadily increasing allergic and other consequences, anyone?) cannot be overestimated.
    Physicists are not good at managing the complexity of the environmental consequences of science, technology, and industry. If we were really prudent, we would subject every new industrial process to environmental testing at least as stringent as is applied to pharmaceutics, but of course cost-benefit analysis of that suggestion is difficult — in the most extreme case, how do we value species extinction in 100 years time? In 1000 years time? Is the cost-benefit analysis different if sea life flourishes because human life ceases?
    If we don’t want such things to happen, we have to live with a little pessimism. There’s all too much puffing of the benefits of science on science blogs, when there should be a little acknowledgment of our place in the web of causality and responsibility (Kudos that your blog is almost always less gung-ho, and that many of the posts above concentrate on one aspect or another of monitoring the large-scale consequences of industrial society). Non-scientists see it, whether we do or not. A little intellectual honesty goes a long way.

  13. #13 Jeff Knapp
    February 21, 2008

    Fusion reactors, hands down. Could potentially solve two critical problems: global warming and energy supply needs for many decades to come. I agree with emeris, an all-out, Manhattan Project style effort is needed.

  14. #14 Leni
    February 21, 2008

    You stole my thunder, Jeff.

    Agreed, hands down.

  15. #15 milkshake
    February 21, 2008

    There was awful lot of work done on fusion too – during the Manhattan project…

  16. #16 Kendall
    February 21, 2008

    Because I can’t say roll out Gen IV reactor technology because its a stretch to call that chemical physics, I’ll go with developing solar technology based on non-silicon methodologies.

  17. #17 Doug
    February 22, 2008

    I would invest in

    1) Carbon neutral, high yield energy production, such as algae or cellulosic ethanol production (no corn ethanol, please!).

    2) Something, anything, to help open people’s minds (correct cognitive dissonance). Willful ignorance is our worst enemy.

  18. #18 Johan Larson
    February 22, 2008

    Fusion reactors, hands down. Could potentially solve two critical problems: global warming and energy supply needs for many decades to come.

    Jeff, are you expecting to succeed for $3 billion?

  19. #19 CCPhysicist
    February 22, 2008

    Concerning #10, how exactly will spending less than is currently planned result in a working fusion system? The US budget has over 0.5 G$ per year for fusion for, well, forever. I don’t even want to know the present value of what has been spent so far on controlled fusion.

    On #13 and #14, the designs exist. We just have to get the political will (translation: education of the public) and the regulatory environment and cost of capital (interest rates) to build them instead of coal plants.

  20. #20 NZ
    February 25, 2008

    $3 billion? That’s easy, I’d throw it all towards Polywell fusion reactors. Robert Bussard FTW.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606

  21. #21 NZ
    February 25, 2008

    The late Robert Bussard’s non-profit corporation. They’re looking for funding to verify the results from WB-6 and to create WB-7.

    http://www.emc2fusion.org/

    Clever acronym, no?