The Firehose
Today, we are attempting to open a window of exactly that character: gravitational wave astrophysics. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime predicted by Einstein’s theory of gravity. We have never detected them directly, though. While an existing detector called LIGO might just barely detect gravitational waves emitted by stellar-mass black hole or neutron star binaries in a few years, a more ambitious space mission called eLISA/NGO could unambiguously detect gravitational wave signals from the edge of the observable universe. We have some ideas about what eLISA/NGO might find—black hole binaries from distant galaxy mergers, for instance—but even more exciting is the possibility that the mission could discover new sources of gravitational waves that we have not even imagined yet. These discoveries could revolutionize physics in the century to come. Unfortunately, the funding agencies do not share this vision and eLISA/NGO is not being funded at this moment. Funding in physics often targets guaranteed, short-term goals. After all, federal funding agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation must justify their use of taxpayers’ money within a period of several years, not several decades. They are naturally driven to fund low-risk research with predictable returns. But to maximize our long-term benefits, I believe that this approach has to change. Funding agencies should allocate a small fraction of their funds (10-20%) to open, data-driven research without programmatic reins tied to specific goals. They should award grants regularly to individuals with a proven track record of innovation rather than to projects with predictable results. Such a funding scheme is essential for promoting breakthroughs in the long run, since it encourages researchers to take on high-risk projects with potentially high gains but fundamentally unpredictable outcomes.
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