Yes, yesterday I was among the 8 million viewers glued to the live feed from Felix Baumgartner’s capsule as he took the plunge from 128,000 feet. While I was right there with him in spirit, I have been troubled by the ‘record-setting’ mantra associated with this, and other recent science events.
Doing science outside in the field is complex. Our paradigm today is to spend only a few short weeks, months if we’re lucky, doing the surveying, data gathering, imaging, and so on that will bring back something useful to contribute to and perpetuate our field. Getting these sorts of things funded is so incredibly difficult, especially with the current economic climate where grant agencies are limiting proposals supported, and the non-traditional funders such as NGOs and other philanthropists want the project to offer considerable reciprocal benefits. In comes ‘stunt science’ as I am now calling it.
For better or worse, to do important work out in the field, today it needs to be visible, and carry a certain sex-appeal. The old-timers will argue this this takes away from the scientific merit of the effort, though new- schoolers see the complimentary benefits of engaging the public with activities that are clearly outside the norm. Those ‘extreme’ type efforts, where humans are out on frontier limits, set the bar for this type of field program.
CNN recently noted Felix’s jump among Cameron’s Marianas Trench dive, and a recent announcement of drilling to the Earth’s mantle as these next frontier-type projects. All bring tremendous scientific and technological achievement to the forefront, place humans at a frontier limits, and as a by-product – yes, they set records.
But, should we undertake these types of projects with the intent of setting records? I argue that no, we should not. It is the wrong motive, and a motive that promotes daredevil’s and stuntmen pushing too far. We need to bring forward the scientific and technological merit first. This will help make exploration ‘cool’…and it is.
With my own work, I too have been criticized to some extent of partaking in ‘stunt science’. My rebuttal is simple – if no one gets out there to do it, we’ll never know what we don’t know. That eagerness to explore, and enable discovery runs within all of us. We just need to better learn how to come together and pout it to good, quality work that all the powers that be can stand behind. That will be our next era of exploration here on Earth – and beyond.