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The Big Science Chill

The Big Science Chill

When smart people in California's tech mecca fail, they pick up the pieces and the community pats them on the back for taking a risk in the name of progress. Some entrepreneurs even take a different stab at the same idea with the hope that they'll be able to do it better. So why does the pure science community play by different rules?

By Sonia Arrison
01/07/05 5:00 AM PT

Many people think of scientific disciplines, such as chemistry or physics, as purely fact-based endeavors, not concerned with the fuzzy field of politics. That's rarely the case because when humans are involved, things often get messy.

A perfect example is the question of cold fusion. Back in 1989, scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced they had discovered cold fusion, or nuclear energy that could be released at room temperature and would produce clean, cheap energy. A media frenzy followed, but excitement over the announcement quickly dissipated when others had trouble replicating their results.

Whether or not cold fusion will eventually work on a consistent basis is still up in the air. But the political fallout from the Pons and Fleischmann announcement was so bad that it almost completely wiped out research in an extremely important field. Because of this announcement, and the subsequent failure to reproduce results, cold-fusion research became stigmatized and regarded by many scientists as a hoax.

What Happened to Persistence?

In 1999, Time magazine called cold fusion one of the 100 worst ideas of the century, and others ridiculed it as nothing more than an "Elvis sighting." But not everyone agrees. Scientists such as SRI International's Michael McKubre and Peter Hagelstein, who designed the X-ray laser that was to be a part of President Reagan's "Star Wars" anti-ballistic missile system, are betting cold fusion can work. And governments around the world are putting money into research.

Given that there are smart, competent people on both sides of the debate, one might wonder what happened to the American attitude of accepting past failures and trying to build on them. In this respect, the scientific community could learn a lot from Silicon Valley.

When smart, well-regarded people in California's tech mecca fail, they pick up the pieces and the community pats them on the back for taking a risk in the name of progress. Heck, some entrepreneurs even take a different stab at the same idea with the hope that they'll be able to do it better. So why does the pure science community play by different rules?

Slaves to Data

Perhaps it's because there's a public perception that scientifically derived data cannot be subject to interpretation, and that skews behavior. Or, as some researchers have suggested, maybe it's because the scientific community acts under a paternalistic type of data-releasing regime that says results should not be announced to the impressionable public until they are sanctioned by the top dogs of the group.

This scientific McCarthyism has a chilling effect on research and could be holding America back from major scientific breakthroughs. If we could figure out cold fusion, we'd have a clean, cheap energy source that would last for an incredibly long time. And that would mean less reliance on oil exporting countries, as well as a cleaner environment and a better standard of living. So even if some experts say it's a long shot, isn't it worth working towards?

Yet the U.S. Department of Energy continues to tiptoe around the issue, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refuses to grant a patent on any invention claiming cold fusion. That's almost a categorical denial of any research money for this important field. Further, getting an article on cold fusion published in any scientific journal is almost impossible. The scientific community is starting to look pretty regressive and reactionary.

Saving Good Ideas

"We have always been open to proposals that have scientific merit as determined by peer review," said the Energy Department's James Decker. But what happens when the peers in question might lose their hot fission research money if cold fusion were possible? Or consider the comments of an embittered Fleischmann to a Wired reporter in 1998: "What you have to ask yourself is who wants this discovery? Do you imagine the seven sisters [the world's top oil companies] want it? ... And do you really think that the Department of Defense wants electrochemists producing nuclear reactions in test tubes?"

The answer is that Americans want a clean, cheap and abundant energy source if they can get it. And they certainly don't want some other country, potentially one with terrorists, to figure it out first.

Bureaucracy in both the private and public sectors can kill good ideas. America needs a return to the days when renaissance men and women populated the field of scientific discovery. If the cold fusion issue is indicative of where scientific inquiry is today, creativity and thinking outside the bureaucratic box appear to be sorely needed. Our world depends on it.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


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