Last week, as #2 in the "Is America going to hell?" series, reader Joseph Britt offered an action plan that included "centralizing space and science functions in a new department." Reader Steve Corneliussen, who emphasizes that he is speaking for himself rather than for the federal Jefferson Lab where he works, begs to differ:
"As you likely know already, that's an old, much-discussed idea. I'm with those who say it'd be terrible because it would cut off the avenues by which novel ideas and techno-audacity can circumvent bureaucratic stodginess.
"My favorite example of such circumvention:
"One of my wordsmith jobs in science is at Jefferson Lab, the national particle accelerator laboratory where you kindly visited and spoke one day in the summer of 2001. The scientists here were the first to apply a form of superconducting accelerating technology on a large scale. The success of their particle accelerator made obvious an enormously attractive opportunity: you could take that same new superconducting technology and make it serve not only particle physics, but photon science and technology -- that is, the use of light having special characteristics. You could make the world's first high-average-power, wavelength-tunable free-electron laser, or FEL. That tunability matters because Mother Nature can be very picky about which precise colors of light can do which tasks.
"But Jefferson Lab is a Department of Energy facility, and back in the early 90s, DOE didn't have or even imagine FELs as part of its mission. What to do? Well, enterprising scientists found other ways to proceed within the federal research establishment. Jefferson Lab's FEL became a noted success, one thing led to another, and now there are prospects for further such progress within DOE.
"The anecdote leads to this obvious question: How could I be telling this story if there had been only one monolithic science agency back in the early 90s?"