The best thing that happened to U.S. science in the last half-century was the Cold War and its consequences—one of them being the Space Race. Americans cared about space in the 1960s as they'd never cared about any science or engineering project before, and never have since. The social catastrophe of the late '60s tends to obscure the spectacular achievements of those years.
What the president ought to do is obvious: focus the nation's mind on a big, real and exciting problem. Ideally we ought to have a competitor to keep us playing our best game—but if the problem is interesting enough, maybe the competitor doesn't matter.
We know several things for sure about what this Big Project ought to be. "Men on Mars" is not it. (It's a fascinating prospect, but too close intellectually and emotionally to the Moon program.)
The right answer will have nothing to do with environmental doomsday stories; it will deal with people's everyday lives, making them better.
Nowadays nearly everyone travels by air; it might be time to reconsider supersonic passenger travel—but the solution has to be cheap and clean and quiet enough to be acceptable, nothing like the Concorde; a hard problem; that's what makes it interesting.
Or: a nationwide magnetic (or some other post-iron-on-iron technology) rail system. Or: practical rocket planes for New York-Tokyo in two hours or less. Or: anything whatsoever to get people between New York and New Haven in under an hour.
That's the sort of science and engineering that changes lives, by manufacturing time, the world's most precious commodity. (Maybe its only precious commodity.)
These are the sorts of practical problems that scientists and engineers (for the most part) no longer give a damn about. But transportation has a lot to do with the nation's quality of life, and transportation is headed downhill fast. For most people, travel is substantially more of a pain today than it was in 1950. Why is that acceptable? I don't give a damn how fast my computer runs if moving my carcass costs more time, effort and pain every year.
Professor of computer science, Yale University
Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies
Board Member, National Endowment for the Arts
Author of Mirror Worlds and Drawing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber