Long Term Commitment to Research

Summer has finally arrived in Seattle this Sunday, 24th of July and it’s time to make use of the deck we have attached to the house. Luckily my wireless reaches out to the deck so I am able to surf an get some vitamin D at the same time.

This blog has nothing to do with cells or networks but is an interesting story of what happens when we devote enough time, enthusiasm and effort to a research project. The project in question is one by Alex Breton, a Swedish designer, who has developed a remarkable little printer. The printer itself happens to be attached to a digital camera. The real innovation is in the printer itself. Much like an optical mouse, to print a picture one simply moves the print head across the print surface, almost any surface will do. A set of lasers allows the device to know exactly where it is on the paper which in turns allows the on board computer to map the appropriate pixels and color to be printed. The youtube video below show the device in operation. Further details can be obtained from designboom.

The point of this story is that it took 11 years and 10 million dollars to develop, the kind of commitment that a government agency could never make today. At one time I used to believe that the US research establishment took the long term view which was one of the key strategies that made the US competitive and the innovative leader of the world. Today I am not so sure that vision still exists. Due to the vagaries of unpredictable research funding our research horizon is now 1, 2, 3 or, if you’re lucky, 4 years long after which the project must close and a new one be developed. Any continuity is lost. One of my latest NSF grants will only last one year, just enough time to get started before the project has to close. This is of course not healthy for US competitiveness and encourages incremental research since the project must be completed and published within a very short period of time. There is no time for high risk revolutionary ideas. I am not sure what the solution is to this other than embark on a whole sale review of how research is funded. One thing is certain, research budgets are likely to be flat if not lower in the years ahead and something will need to be one to maintain US competitiveness in science and technology.

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