My advice to the new Congress on technology policy is to kill government science megaprograms, get out of the technology-subsidy business, and double science and technology funding for universities through thousands of small grants. These priorities are particularly important for Republicans who find big-science wonders hard to resist.
With the possible exception of the Manhattan Project, government science megaprograms have a terrible record of return on the taxpayers' investment. Remember synfuels? This scheme to create gasoline from coal followed the classic, eight-step scenario for wasteful government megaprograms:
1) Scare the hell out of them. (What happens when the oil cartel shuts off the gasoline?)
2) Declare that the program is so big, only the government can pull it off. (Translation: No other sucker could be convinced to invest in this loser.)
3) Get expert advice. (Translation: Listen to oil industry lobbyists who are paid to know that what is good for the oil industry is good for America.)
4) Create a consensus. (Translation: Spread the pork out to enough states to get the bill passed.)
5) Execute. (Translation: Use government funds to hire a large P.R. staff.)
7) Lose $88 billion.
8) Blame the Republicans for underfunding the project.
Remember the superconducting supercollider (SSC)? I debated a particle physicist from the University of Texas-Arlington on National Public Radio on its merits. He claimed that $12 billion was a cheap price to discover the sixth and elusive "top quark" subatomic particle.
I argued that the genius of the physics community would find a cheaper way to float the top quark in electric and magnetic fields long enough to take its picture. A few weeks later, Congress canceled the SSC. A few weeks after that, the top quark had its first snapshot taken at Chicago's Fermi labs. Then, a Texas entrepreneur proclaimed the $4-billion 10-mile hole in the ground created for the SSC an ideal spot for growing mushrooms.
Boeing and Lockheed have just teamed up to work on Space Shuttle II. What did Space Shuttle I accomplish to justify the next multibillion dollar investment? Certainly, it launched many satellites, but they could have been launched more cheaply with disposable rockets. Indeed, if the American taxpayer had not been forced to subsidize those shuttle satellite launches (wiping out any possible competition that would have had to pay full cost), there might now be a viable private American corporation capable of launching satellites--a boon to the entrepreneurs waiting in line for years for a satellite launch.
NASA has run out of useful work for the shuttle, let alone its successor. So we are bombarded by reports of German and Russian astronauts using the Canadian robot arm to perform ecology experiments. The large P.R. efforts that form in step 5 of all government megascience endeavors have learned that spreading the pork (step 4) now must be both an international and a politically correct endeavor.
Some shuttle experiments--at a cost of about $500 million each--are simply ludicrous. Who cares or will ever care if spiders spin their webs differently in zero gravity? And technology con men are having a field day. One University of Houston professor convinced NASA to spend $2.5 billion on five shuttle flights to make space-grown gallium arsenide (GaAs) semiconductor wafers, the starting material for GaAs computer chips. The flight produced five wafers at a cost of about $100 million each. The promise is that in the near-perfect vacuum of space, the shuttle will produce GaAs semiconductor wafers nearly perfect in crystal structure. Eventually, the space-grown wafer cost is projected to drop to $10,000 per wafer.