We value bio-diversity and try to preserve it. What about preserving diversity in innovation?
A news item from the July 2 Alaska Dispatch tells us that the US Air Force has postponed the closure of the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) until 2015.
From the article:
The Air Force said it will delay closing the $290 million HAARP site near Gakona until next spring, while scientists hoping to keep it from being torn down argue that the Air Force should leave diagnostic equipment in place.
Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, wrote to Sen. Lisa Murkowski today that the agency will “defer irreversible dismantling of the transmitter site until May 2015.”
The Air Force planned to close the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program for good last month, but stopped after scientists from the University of Alaska and other research institutions objected to the proposed destruction of the facility. The letter from the Air Force put a new deadline on the shutdown, allowing time for a new operator to be found for the ionospheric research effort.
“We will proceed with removal of government property not essential to operations and seek to reduce maintenance costs through additional storage of equipment and winterization,” she said.
The HAARP work may not be familiar to many LOTRW readers. Here’s some additional background, excerpted from the relevant Wikipedia entry, …HAARP is an ionospheric research program jointly funded by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)… [whose] purpose is to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the potential for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance. The HAARP program operates a major sub-arctic facility, named the HAARP Research Station, on an Air Force–owned site near Gakona, Alaska.
The most prominent instrument at the HAARP Station is the Ionospheric Research Instrument (IRI), a high-power radio frequency transmitter facility operating in the high frequency (HF) band. The IRI is used to temporarily excite a limited area of the Ionosphere. Other instruments, such as a VHF and a UHF radar, a fluxgate magnetometer, a digisonde (an ionospheric sounding device), and an induction magnetometer, are used to study the physical processes that occur in the excited region.
The Wikipedia entry goes on to enumerate some of the main scientific findings from HAARP as follows:
- Generating very low frequency radio waves by modulated heating of the auroral electrojet, useful because generating VLF waves ordinarily requires gigantic antennas
- Generating weak luminous glow (measurable, but below that visible with a naked eye) from absorbing HAARP’s signal
- Generating extremely low frequency waves in the 0.1 Hz range. These are next to impossible to produce any other way, because the length of a transmit antenna is dictated by the wavelength of the signal it must emit.
- Generating whistler-mode VLF signals that enter the magnetosphere and propagate to the other hemisphere, interacting with Van Allen radiation belt particles along the way
- VLF remote sensing of the heated ionosphere
In a word, HAARP is a unique capability allowing scientists not just to observe the ionosphere but to heat it, and then study the effects. HAARP converts a small portion of the ionosphere – a very interesting portion because of its high latitude and associated auroral activity – into a laboratory. The news piece suggests that the Air Force is extending funding of the main heater facility per se, but the associated diagnostics capabilities – essential to the scientific value of the facility – are being removed. Scientists and a range of research institutions and professional societies have been expressing dismay at the decision and seeking alternative sources of support.
Such program terminations are nothing new to science. In a way, scientists, who are in the business of change, shouldn’t be immune to change’s consequences. Better research opportunities arise. New avenues of work open up. Scarce resources can sometimes be better used elsewhere.
But could it be that we terminate scientific research too casually, too quickly? Much is made these days of the benefits of collocating research and business startups in an effort to stimulate innovation. Googling the expression “innovation incubators” offers links to countless such efforts underway around the globe. The idea is that such complexes energize those involved, juxtapose diverse creative efforts, and foster synergies that greatly accelerate the pace and quality of R&D, R2O, and business creation.
This calls to mind a rough correspondence or analogy with biodiversity and its role in the development and maintenance of ecosystems. Just as meteorologists have suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings can affect downstream weather, ecologists tell us that seemingly minor actors in ecosystems (that same butterfly?) can play a role in ecosystem health, and therefore the nature and value of ecosystem services out of all proportion to surface appearances. Biologists have also noted that many seemingly insignificant species may hold the key to pharmaceuticals that may help cure infections or suppress cancers and the like. This knowledge has prompted US and other governments to identify species threatened with extinction and use caution when it comes to pesticide and herbicide use and habitat destruction that might contribute to such extinctions (e.g., the Endangered Species Act passed into law under president Richard Nixon in 1973). Some of the listed species seem to untutored minds to be rather esoteric. We could speak of charismatic megafauna such as the big cats, or a host of amphibians; the lists are extensive. Instead, let’s just concentrate for now on a few endangered butterflies: a quick, unscientific sampling yields the Monarch butterfly, the Karner blue butterfly, the Callippe silverspot butterfly, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, Florida leafwing and Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterflies, the High Brown Fritillary butterfly (pictured above) … there’s much, much more, but you get the idea. (That’s a lot of weather modification!)
You and I would certainly argue that whatever the merits of preserving such life forms, and whatever the uncertainties attendant on their role in ecosystems and ultimately their importance to human affairs, that science is different. We created facilities such as HAARP; surely we can create them again if and when the need arises.
But here’s a cautionary tale, from personal experience (I was the villain in this piece, which nonetheless had a happy ending). My first management job in NOAA was running the Geoacoustics Research Program Area of NOAA’s Wave Propagation Laboratory in the early 1970’s. Our group developed, maintained and operated microbarograph arrays for the detection of atmospheric infrasound from sources around the world. We were funded by the U.S. Air Force (coincidentally, as is HAARP). The work dated back to the 1950’s. The main goal was to detect the distinctive acoustic signatures of above-ground nuclear tests and locate the sources and therefore the countries involved. Two months after I took over the group, the Air Force eliminated its support for the project; they had decided they could fully rely on the Vela satellites to do the monitoring job from space. We lost two-thirds of our funding and had to downsize the group from 17 to 7 people. We continued the research for years, however, studying the acoustic waves generated by seasonal events such tornadic storms, jet-stream airflow over mountain ranges in the winter hemisphere, and storms at sea (the latter known as so-called microbaroms).
Our data were recorded on old-fashioned analog paper strip charts, which we stored on the premises. Over time, as the mass of the accumulated records grew, civil engineers determined that in the event of a flood (our laboratories were located in the Boulder Creek floodplain), the building might become unstable and collapse, due solely to the weight of our paper (!). The records had to go.
Digital recording was coming into use at the time. I suggested to Al Bedard, the scientist in charge of the work, that he should destroy the paper records (surely no one in future years would be willing to go through the painstaking labor of analyzing the analog data when digital alternative data sets were available). Fortunately Al rejected my advice (closer to an order, actually; in those days I had a misplaced self-confidence about my abilities and role as the Branch Chief). Much as Moses’ Hebrew mother put him in a basket and floated him down the Nile in order to save him from death at the hand of the Egyptians, Al took all of the data – a few tons of it – and stored all the records at the Denver Arsenal (to this day, the image of Al moving all those strip charts into safekeeping interspersed among the nerve gas and the other ugly stuff haunts me still).
Fast forward several years. The nuclear test-ban treaty had put an end to above-ground testing. But some Swedish scientists announced that using their microbarograph array they could detect underground tests from the atmospheric infrasound generated (in the microbarom frequency range) by the associated seismic disturbances. Not long after, folks from certain US government agencies showed up on our doorstep. They asked Al how much it would cost to develop and deploy a new microbarograph array just to confirm or deny the Swedish results. Cost was of no object.
None of that would be necessary, Al said. All they had to do was furnish him the dates and times of underground tests they knew about, and he would do the analysis on the stored records and look for telltale signals. He went back to the Denver Arsenal, retrieved the pertinent strip charts, and in a few weeks confirmed that the Swedish monitoring claims had merit. Saved our government millions of dollars and months if not years of delay and uncertainty. Such geoacoustic monitoring continues at NOAA to this day.
You might be able to supply similar stories, both pro and con. Regardless, experience suggests we should close off avenues of research such as HAARP with reluctance and humility, knowing we’re reducing the diversity of innovation, which may matter to our future every bit as much as biodiversity.