In the FY-2008 omnibus spending bill, the US Congress has decided to zero out all funding for ITER, the international fusion reactor to be built in Cadarache, France. While unilateral withdrawal of US funding for international organisations is hardly news (just ask these guys), this still raises a lot of big question marks over many planned international science projects.
Firstly, US withdrawal from ITER makes it a lot less likely that the ILC, the next-generation international particle collider intended to suceed the LHC, will be built in the US. In fact, since US funding for ILC development has been essentially zeroed out as well, and since the British government recently also did a unilateral withdrawal, shutting down its participation in the ILC project, it is becoming increasingly likely that the ILC might never be built, putting the future of experimental particle physics beyond the LHC, and thus our best shot so far at understanding the innermost workings of the universe, into doubt. It might seem a bit premature to worry about the fate of the LHC's successor when the LHC isn't even online yet, but these kinds of projects take very long (as seen with the LHC) and funding problems can doom them.
Secondly, the purpose of ITER is to develop controlled nuclear fusion as a new source of energy for humanity's future, a clean source of energy that does not cause any direct CO2 emission and only small amounts of very slightly radioactive waste, a sustainable source of energy that does not depend on nearly-exhausted fossil fuel or uranium resources located in politically volatile regions.
If this kind of applied research that has an obvious tangible short-to-mid-term benefit that even politicians should be able to grasp is in danger of losing funding from a nation that only recently declared science to be one of its top priorities, what hope remains for more open-ended fundamental "blue-sky" research, whose benefits are less obvious to outsiders?
But if funding for CERN had been cut 20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee might never have developed the WWW, and we would have no Google, no Amazon, no Facebook, no eBay, no scientificblogging.com; millions upon millions of jobs would never have been created, and the world economy would be a couple trillion dollars or so smaller.
If politicians have become so short-sighted that the benefits of having a clean, sustainable energy source within reach are not clear to them, what new WWW will we be missing out on because of the more fundamental research they will never even consider funding?
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