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Column: Weird Science: Military Leads U.S. Scientific Development

This story was written by Eric Kittleson, Daily Californian
Money. Not only do college students not have it, neither do scientists. Now maybe it's a good thing that many of these Frankensteins don't have the capability to see their twisted ideas become reality, but sometimes legitimate science doesn't receive the funding it needs. Universities across the globe try to help, but money is limited there as well -- especially if the government funding the university can't seem to get its budget straight (I'm talking to you, California).

There are also private enterprises with interests in new science here and there, but the cost of the research and the risk of failure are high and can make investors nervous. While startups are established with the express purpose of developing the newest technology, people still seem to get left out of the system.

Where do some of those science rejects go? Why Convergence08 of course!Convergence08 was a conference filled with unconventional thinkers pontificating about the science of tomorrow. The topics discussed were at times mind-blowing and other times really boring, but you could tell that many of the scientists there hadn't found anyone to pick up their projects. Many of the ideas floating around were at best theories, but nonetheless their creators had high hopes of making those dreams come true.Whenever that nasty topic of funding came up, one acronym surfaced over and over again: DARPA.

I was not familiar with DARPA until I attended a presentation on robotically controlled automobiles. The presentation featured videos of life-sized, driverless cars operating on makeshift roads with amazing precision. Most of the cars navigating the track were small, maneuverable sedans, but one was a huge Hummer that barely fit on the course. The presenter pointed out the monstrosity and exclaimed, "They know who the real investors are." And that's when it hit me: DARPA is an extension of the military.

To be more exact, DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense. According to its Web site, "DARPA's mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military." To do this, DARPA snaps up and investigates all the ideas that are too crazy for others to pursue in order to give the United States an edge in military strength. Thus, this agency was on the tongues of the researchers and inventors at Convergence08 with good reason.

How can DARPA do all this? Because the Department of Defense, unlike everyone else, has money. This past year DARPA's budget was estimated to be more than $3 billion, with an increase expected for 2009. My guess is that they are willing to shower their fortunes upon any lucky scientist as long as his or her ideas are applicable on the battlefield. Now, many ideas are probably quite benign, such as the self-guided car technology that could mean less soldiers dying in roadside bombings. However, DARPA also proudly declares itself the inventor of the M-16 assault rifle and the stealth fighter, whose applications aren't as warm and fuzzy. I feel like there's something wrong with the current system if one of the major players in scientific research and development is the U.S. military.

Look, I'm sure freelance scientists have many options when pursuing their ideas, but I still found it scary that DARPA's name was whispered in every corner of the Convergence08 convention center. I have no problem with our government defending the country with the latest and greatest technology, but how much funding does it need? In a country that keeps calling for less government waste, I sincerely hope DARPA uses its money well. Remember that every penny we give the military should be used to fight and end war, ultimately leading to the defense budget deflating.

So what I would really like to see i over time, when we feel we don't have to put so much attention on weaponry, that DARPA's budget move from the defense sector to the civilian side of the government. If Congress wants to spend money on the general funding of science simply for the common good, I say that's tax money well spent. Every dollar shoveled into defense could instead be reserved for innovators in our university system or be pumped into the private sector for unlimited ways to better serve the country. At the very least, scientists could then use their intellect for a variety of ideas instead of using it to make things blow up.

You here that, Barack? Now that's some change I can believe in.