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A long-term investment

Only federal commitment assures science’s advance

This is an exciting time for people interested in cosmology (the study of the whole universe). Europe’s Planck satellite has just released its first set of data.

The satellite was launched in 2009 and has been measuring radio waves from the early universe. When I say early, I mean really early: 380,000 years after the Big Bang (less than a thousandth of the total age).

The results are fascinating and incredibly precise. They also contain an important lesson or two for the current debate in Washington over budgets.

But first to the science. The radio waves Planck measures are important because they help us understand what the universe was like 380,000 years after the Big Bang. By comparing today to back then, we are able to determine all sorts of things about the universe, such as what it’s made of and how old it is.

Only about 4.9 percent of the universe turns out to be made of the atoms you and I see every day. 26 percent to 26.5 percent of the universe is made up of dark matter, a type of matter that doesn’t produce light. A majority of the universe (between 68 percent and 69 percent) is made up of dark energy, a fairly mysterious energy that helps make the universe expand.

Oh, we also now know that the age of the universe is 13.81 billion years.

As an astronomer, I’m pretty excited about these results.

However, I’m also simply astounded at the precision of these numbers. The ranges have narrowed tremendously in the last 10 to 15 years.

This has been possible only through a combination of excellent observations, clever ideas and a tremendous amount of hard work.

The radio waves observed by Planck require a lot of analysis. I think it’s also nice to take a moment and appreciate when the scientific process actually works.

Nature really does behave in pretty specific ways.

If you ask the right questions and design the experiment carefully enough, you really can get answers.

However, there is another lesson in these results.

Understanding nature requires a deep, dedicated investment over many years.

No series of on-again, off-again projects could reproduce what Planck has measured.

Sophisticated science requires years of funding. Unfortunately, the federal government is in the process of divesting from a wide array of fundamental science right now.

The principal ways that our government enables new discoveries is by allowing scientists to compete for grants through agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and NASA.

All these agencies, unfortunately, are now struggling to maintain their investment in current projects and initiate new ones.

The Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, for example, are both currently in the process of figuring out which major facilities to close because they simply don’t have sufficient funding to do all the great science that we have the ability to do.

Committee advice for these agencies reads like a base closure report at the end of the Cold War. The difference, however, is that the scientific process has not ended.

Scientific advances in fields such as genomics and nanotechnology will play a central role in making all our lives better.

Politicians regularly talk of how important it is for our country to pull more students into science, technology, engineering and math fields. However, for those of us on the inside of these fields, the messages from Washington couldn’t be more different.

When the investment in science enabled by the NSF, NIH, DOE and NASA is cut, as it has been in the last couple of years, students graduating with doctorates in fields such as physics, biology and chemistry are unable to find jobs in their fields. Most newly minted doctoral-level scientists aspire to post-graduate jobs funded either directly or indirectly by these agencies.

If we think it’s important to continue a strong investment in science, we need to figure out a way that students who are gifted in and wish to enter the field can share their talent. That means continued, strong, consistent investment through the NSF, NIH, DOE and NASA.

Congratulations to the Planck team for a job well done. I eagerly look forward to more results. This work is a stellar example of long-term scientific investment that worked.

Christer Watson is an associate professor of physics at Manchester University. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.