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Dialing for dollars in search of Mr. Fusion

The real, credible work of scientific research takes long hours of patient toll--and that's just to obtain the funding. Then the real work begins.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Thurday, February 18, 1999


Page 13A

I stretched out on the hotel bed exhausted from the day's work. Surfing the cable I stumbled upon a rerun of the movie "Back to the Future", a delightful and funny science fiction piece.

Toward the end of the movie, Doctor Brown returns from the future with his time machine sporting a new engine--his "flux capacitor" had been upgraded to a "Mr. Fusion" nuclear power generator. Kitchen appliances gone high tech.

It reminded me that we are at the 10-year anniversary of Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann's bogus "cold fusion" discovery announcement. They claimed to have harnessed nuclear fusion in an experimental setup that closely resembled a poor quality science fair project. Essentially a mason jar and some scrap metal.

I remembered the excitement that swept through our office on the initial announcement. We had joked that this was the beginning of the end for Duke Power and the other energy brokers. Soon, little Honda Home Nuclear Generators would be humming in basements and backyards everywhere. Power from water. Mr. Fusion.

Well, not quite. After the unconventional announcement in the media, they would have enough time to rob the state of Utah for support before it became apparent that it was a sham. Other labs would not get it to work, and the scientific method demands independent verification.

Contrast that to my task in Washington that tiring day: serving on a review panel to judge which grant proposals should be recommended for funding in one program run by the National Science Foundation. For two days we would debate the relative and absolute merits of a few dozen proposals to spend a part of your tax dollars. A small part--our total would be about what Michael Jordan earned his last year. For one game.

Three fourths would not be funded, and not because they were bad science. Ninety percent were fine, but only the best could be afforded. I'll bet you've never been told how this works, so get a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, and let me fill you in.

A scientist who wants NSF support spends many hours writing a proposal, boiling the arguments down to the 15 pages allowed. Additional pages detail and justify the funds needed to do the project. Perhaps a couple of months of summer salary (like teachers, we profs don't have a three month vacation, but three months of unemployment). Some stipends for students to work on the project and travel funds for attending a conference to present preliminary results. Final results will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, for which we not only don't get paid but we must pay between one and two hundred dollars for each page of the article. Need bucks for that.

We might need some equipment, but our university usually has to come up with half the cost. When the items are toted up, the university tacks on almost half again more for its overhead. After all, I will be breathing their conditioned air, parking in the lot, using the copier, etc. Gotta pay the landlord.

These proposals are sent by the NSF to several reviewers whom the proposers probably know but will not know which ones are doing the review. Conflicts of interest are sorted out and the panel discusses the proposals and advises the NSF. They make the final call, but usually stay close to the panel's advice.

When a project is funded, the real work begins. When results are finally submitted for publication, the scientific process continues. The journal editor sends the paper to several reviewers (referees) who read it to see if proper methodology was followed. Again, the author probably personally knows the reviewers but does not know whom is being used. Corrections are recommended and the editor serves as judge to see that a worthy paper results.

This is distinctly not the approach taken by some scientists today. Announcements appear in the media or on the Web before in the journals. Good journals usually 'embargo' press releases until the day of publication, but reporters sometime get a sniff of something still in the works. The Antarctic Mars meteorite with some signatures of life was such a story--it was released prematurely when the leak started to pour. The non-near-miss of an asteroid last year was an example of a scientist saying too much too soon.

Mr. Fusion? Probably will not happen. There are good fusion experiments being done, with the proper checks and balances. And only the very best will be supported by your taxes.

The rest are toast.

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