The Moon Shot Shortage…

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, here’s Jason Pontin’s somewhat poignant piece in MIT Technology Review. Money quote:

I remember sitting in my family’s living room in Berkeley, California, watching the liftoff of Apollo 17 I was five; my mother admonished me not to stare at the fiery exhaust of the Saturn 5 rocket. I vaguely knew that this was the last of the moon missions—but I was absolutely certain that there would be Mars colonies in my lifetime. What happened?

That indeed is the question. Pontin thinks that it’s a combination of political and institutional failure combined with the fact that some of our biggest problems really aren’t technological in nature (he uses Malaria as an example and asserts that it’s really a poverty problem).

For myself, I worry that it’s something deeper. Our human brains are evolved, not engineered and they are far from infinitely capable (for details see here).  It may well be that the current global challenges are just too complex for our collective human “mind” to handle–as Pontin points out, if famines are really a result of political failure, then a new Green Revolution isn’t going to solve the problem.

There are a slew of such “human brain limit” problems facing our global society right now–having just ridden out Hurricane Sandy, climate change comes immediately to mind–it may well be that truly understanding our own brains may well be the ultimate example of such a problem (I have a former graduate student working diligently on the theoretical aspects of that issue).

Taken from the standpoint of a human brain limit, a Moon Shot might be viewed as relatively…simple.

More on Patrick Kennedy’s Moon Shot Idea

First, I think this dovetails nicely with the entire Decade of the Mind Project as it was conceived at Krasnow, back in 2007. Congressman Kennedy was a tireless champion of neuroscience while he served in the House of Representatives and on the occasions that I met with him, I was incredibly impressed with his enthusiasm and integrity on this issue among many others.

Second, I worry that frankly, where the United States is politically right now, the notion of another US “owned” Moon Shot is not in the cards. Congress seems entirely deadlocked over the structure of the US budget on virtually every substantive component: revenue, entitlements, and discretionary spending. That ideological gridlock seems to be mirrored, both in the media and in the polity itself. At the same time, in my conversations with economists, the issue of the debt limit and its ramifications in terms of sovereign default are both unclear and potentially very consequential.

All of this, at a time when the US science R&D budgets are under incredible stress.

Much as I have been a champion of something like Decade of the Mind myself, I find myself increasingly engaged in the more proximal fight to both preserve and protect America’s on-going investments in science and education.

Any real progress towards a “Moon Shot” in the neurosciences will necessarily have to be international in nature. This is also true of large-scale physics projects such as the Large Hadron Collider as it is true of the International Space Station.

I would also argue, that the globalized private sector has a very important role to play–as it is now beginning to play in Space commercialization and exploration.

I’m impressed then with the notion of making mankind’s most significant scientific quests, universal–not the property of any one nation state, but rather the product of collective human endeavor.