The downside of counterterrorism technology
Research focuses on immediate results, but what about long-term understanding?
If there is a downside to increased funding for counterterrorism technologies since 9/11, it's that the funds earmarked for such research may have been diverted from other important areas. Indeed, many researchers note that government support for basic research seems to have dropped in recent years'a trend accelerated, in all likelihood, by the rush to fund new counterterrorism technologies.
'One of the things we've noticed since 9/11 is that a lot of the classic research problems people have been working on have been reworked to [counterterrorism] tasks,' said Scott Bennett, vice president of R&D for SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va.
'I'm not seeing as much basic research as I did eight, 10 years ago,' agreed Gisele Bennett, head of the Georgia Tech Research Institute Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory.
Basic research is the act of studying a subject without regard to useful applications that might come from it. Instead, it broadens overall understanding of a basic area, such as material science or medicine.
In contrast, applied research is done specifically to develop a new technology or product. Most large private companies pursue some form of applied research, though only a few of the largest still conduct basic research.
Most counterterrorism research is a form of applied research. Bennett noted that a lot of counterterrorism technology development is done under a tight schedule; the public is eager to see results from immensely complex projects.
'Rapid prototyping is what [the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency] is pushing for'18 months from the time of concept to the time of having a deployable project,' Bennett said. 'This rapid prototyping is extremely challenging and condenses the traditional development cycle.'
And while such short-term development can meet the immediate need of protecting the country from another 9/11, it could put the country at a long-term disadvantage, if, as a result, we fall technologically behind other countries in both fundamental knowledge and trained expertise.
To some degree, basic research has always been precarious in the context of an agency's budget, because it is hard to justify costs without demonstrating immediate benefits. However, basic research shouldn't be seen as an expenditure, but as an investment, said Jules Duga, a senior researcher for Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio.
'One of the big problems with basic research is that too often it is looked at as being a luxury,' Duga said. 'And it is, in a way, but if you don't have your basics, you will get stuck in neutral. You won't be able to develop new things in competition with what other people have.'