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September 17, 2014 - Image 9

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 2014-09-17

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83

SPACE
From Page 5B
said the pool of scientists seeking
funds has increased steadily over the
last30years, while research funding
hasremained essentially stagnant.
"When I started in the U.S. about
30 years ago, the funding (accep-
tance) rate was about 1-in-2 or 1-in-
3," Gombosi said. "Today it's 1-in-8,
1-in-10, so it's much more difficult to
getfunding."
Gombosi added the trend over
the past several decades has been
to shift research dollars away from
universities. For years, there was
an unspoken agreement that NASA
would build the spacecraft and rely
on the universities for instruments,
but as funding becomes tighter,+
NASAhaselected to keep more proj-
r. ectsin-house to save money..
The funding shortfalls contribute
to a cyclical decline in the research
enterprise as it becomes harder for
new researchers to get the needed
funding and experience. While the
SPRL has not seen any decline in
the number of students, mostprofes-
sors acknowledge that the focus has
shifted, for better or worse.
Thenextgeneration
The 1960s saw a maior transfor-

the country. In addition to unprec-
edented levels of scientific funding
at universities,both the primary and
secondary education systems were
overhauled to prepare as many stu-
dents as possible for careers in scien-
tific fields.
During their education, Fisk and
many of his colleagues were witness
to the seminal events in U.S. space
exploration. However, the current
generation of young space science
graduate and undergraduate train-
ees were several decades from birth
the last time a man walked on the
moon.
Yet students continue to pursue
space sciences. More graduate stu-
dents are working in the lab now
than during the 1950s and '60s, and
they are coming from all over the
nation and the world.
"Space research in general and
the visuals that go with it are still a
stimulus for those who want to go
into science and engineering," Fisk
said.
At the SPRL, Ruf, the director of
the Space Physics Research Lab, said
he has observed significant changes
in the students entering the field
over his 25 years of teaching experi-
ence.

A researcher at the Space Physics Research Lab tests a satellite prototype using a vacuum chamber and other instruments.

ing to the University used to enter.
with a base set of mechanical skills,
whereas current applicants more
often have developed skills in com-
puter programming.
Tinkering projects, such as car
tune-ups, ham radios and model
airplanes, were valuable in teaching
students basic skills that were appli-
cable once they reached a laboratory
setting.
"It's still necessary," Ruf said.
"When you build real stuff you've
got to get your hands on itand you've
got to know how to use tools."
Today, screws and soldering irons
have been replaced with laptops and
smartphones. Ruf said several of his
students played around with cod-
ing smartphone apps in high school,
building skills in computer sci-
ence that can sometimes be helpful
around the lab. But he said the "shift
in culture" has also forced him to
change his teaching methods.
"Almost none of them know how
to use a screwdriver," Ruf said.
The beginning ofthe end, orjust
the beginning?
In 2012, the NASA's Mars Sci-
ence Laboratory successfully landed
Curiosity, a unmanned scientific
rover, on the surface of Mars to per-
form a slew of experiments, in part
to determine potential for human
settlement of the planet and con-
tinue the search for life in the solar.
system.
The mission is estimated to cost
about $2.5 billion. If manned explo-
ration and settlement of the planet
was ever pursued, the cost wouldbe
significantly higher - potentially $1

trillion, according to Gombosi.
But scientists - ever the pragma-
tists when concerned with funding
cuts - will continue to support such
efforts as long as the government
keeps funding them.
"That's the kind of stuff that
catches public attention and some-
times we scientists prostitute our-
selves by jumping on things which
sell, butit gets you into trouble," said
Engineering Professor Emeritus
Andrew Nagy.
While a manned Mars mission
may fulfill the human desire to
explore, Nagy said there are plenty
of unanswered questions in the field
that could be accomplished for less
money.
"A lot of stuff that we want to do
can't be done," Nagy said. "Things
are getting more expensive. The
easy things have been done. There's
a lot of research that one wants to do
... there's no resources to do it."
Nagy also noted that some dis-
coveries, such as the transistor, were
invented through research that
emphasized "science for the sake of
science," asserting that researchers
not lose sight of the possibility for
real discovery.
But on the other side of the SPRL,
it appears that pragmatism might
be the decision maker, at least for
the time being. In 2012, Ruf - along
with two other University research-
ers - wereawarded $151.7 million to
fund the Cyclone Globaf Navigation
Satellite System - eight satellites
that, when launched into orbit, will
assist in the process of forecasting
and monitoring hurricanes.
"These days there's a lot more
emphasis on practical, useful types

of space science and less on answer-
ing the big questions just for the sake
of answering them," Ruf said.
"I think it's a good thing to
spend significant money on trying
to understand what makes the uni-
verse tick - those are important
questions,"he added."Buttthey don't
practically improve the day-to-day
quality of life of anybody other than
the scientistsworking on them."
With advances in smartphones
and miniaturization of electronic
components, Ruf said space sci-
entists have started to explore the
idea of smaller satellites. Instead of
launchinga single $2 billion satellite
each year, researchers are attempt-
ing to build a series of smaller $5 to
$50 billion dollar satellitesthatcould
be launched by a smaller institution,
such as a university, which histori-
cally have not played a large role in
the development and constructionof
entire space systems.
The CGNSS could provide more
accurate weather data, and in gen-
eral provide "more science per dol-
lar," according to Ru. At present, it
appears policymakers areinsupport
of this pragmatic approach, giving
Rufconfidencethathisresearchwill
continue for the foreseeable future.
But he also recognized that
research funding is ultimately dic-
tated by public opinion, which is
always subject to change.
"I thinkthere's apnood in general
in Washingtonthat they're trying to
focusscienceresearchfundstonmore
practical things," Ruf said. "This is
where the emphasis is going these
days. But who knows, maybe it will
swingback five or10years froUMnow
and I'lbe scrabbling for funding"

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