Here two answers to the Edge Annual Question. In the first version I have followed your instruction to stick to science and to those scientific areas where I have expertise. The resulting memo is practical and unimaginative. It may not be of much interest to the Edge community, but I think it would be more useful to the president than a wider-ranging document. The second memo is the unpractical and imaginative version. It is not very imaginative, because I still want it to be taken seriously as an agenda for the twenty-first century.
Memo to the President (I)
The scientific enterprise in this country is generally in good shape and needs only modest increases in support to keep up with inflation. One weakness of the enterprise that needs to be addressed is the system of peer review that governs the support of investigator-initiated proposals. The peer-review system works well for proposals that lie within established disciplines of science. It works badly for proposals that lie outside or between established disciplines.
A glaring example of the failure of the system is the lack of support for large underground detectors of elementary particles. During the past year, the two most important discoveries in particle physics were made using such detectors, one in Canada and one in Japan. The United States has fallen behind in this highly promising area of research, because underground detectors lie between the disciplines of physics and astronomy. Physicist peer-reviewers failed to support underground detectors because they are not accelerators, and astronomer peer-reviewers failed to support them because they are not telescopes.
Similar failures of the peer-review system occur in areas of space technology that lie outside mainstream disciplines. They probably also occur in areas of biology and medicine with which I am not familiar. A possible remedy for this state of affairs would be to assign a small fraction of the national research budget, perhaps five or ten percent, to proposals that are exempt from the normal process of peer-review. The choice of exempt proposals to be supported could be made by directors of federal agencies, with the help of panels representing science as a whole rather than specialized disciplines.
Memo to the President (II)
During the last ten years, the human genome project has laid the foundation for a comprehensive understanding of human biology. The translation of the new understanding into cures for human diseases will be a slow and difficult process.
Meanwhile, a new century has begun. It is time for you to launch a bold new initiative in biology, a planetary genome project to sequence the genomes of all the millions of species that live together on this planet. This will require first of all an aggressive development of new sequencing technology, comparable to the development of computer technology during the last half century, so that the cost of sequencing will continue to fall as rapidly as the cost of computing.
The goal will be to complete the sequencing of the biosphere within less than half a century, at a cost comparable with the cost of the human genome. The successful completion of the project will bring an enormous increase in understanding of the ecology of the planet. Increased understanding could then be translated into practical measures to sustain and improve the ecology while allowing continued rapid economic development.
Detailed understanding of the ecology could lead to large-scale and cost effective use of solar energy and to stabilization of the atmosphere and the climate. Let this century be the century of cures for planetary as well as human diseases.
retired professor of physics
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey
Author of Disturbing the Universe; Infinite in All Directions; and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet.