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Forget about cures for HIV and leukemia. Give us robo-warriors and high-tech Jesus boots.

Wednesday, Mar 31 2004
Science, at its most boring, reveals transcendent truths about a changing world. Dull researchers spend entire lives seeking pure knowledge, and produce minute advances in our understanding of genes, weather, and other pinhead topics.

More exciting scientists forge into more fascinating realms. They explore a future in which Americans fight robo-wars with a single joystick, and anyone can wear mechanical pants like Sigourney Weaver in Alien. In these hero-scientists' dreams, techno-Jesus boots enable wearers to walk through minefields as if upon water, and futuristic bullets hurt even more than regular ones.

This is the kind of science I had always imagined my president really cared about. For this reason I didn't mind much in February when a bunch of boring Nobel laureates claimed the Bush administration forced government scientists to lie about toxic waste, global warming, HIV, species extinction, and other pedantic issues. I didn't care two weeks ago when 170 scientists carped about Bush's "political distortion of biomedical science" following the dismissal of a San Francisco professor from the President's Council on Bioethics. And I wasn't bothered last week when Arianna Huffington announced that she and her friends got tested for blood-borne mercury in the wake of reports that the Bush administration suppressed evidence about safe levels of toxic metals in fish. Why is Huffington fussing about maybe having mercury in her blood? When Bitchen Science someday develops a race of techno-superhumans, won't metallic blood course through everyone's veins?

My complacency dissipated, however, when I recently learned that the Bush administration's policy of screwing up boring basic science might also harm Bitchen Science. In investigating the current state of government-sponsored cool research, I discovered a scientific law our president should know. It's called the law of conservation of stupidness, and can be compared to energy transfer, osmosis, or the toxic cloud at Ground Zero that Bush's EPA lied to America about. Once in the air, water, or flesh, stupidness seeps into everything; it contaminates space agencies and armed forces; it gums up defense-research organizations.

The Bush administration's dropout approach to boring science is affecting the kind of empirical inquiry our president should protect.

My inquiry into Bitchen Science uncovered boneheadedness run amok. Take, for example, U.S. Army officials buying cadavers from university research centers and then blowing them to smithereens. Or the Pentagon-funded battlebots that couldn't find their way out of a parking lot. I further discovered that government watchdogs recently shut down a corrupt NASA institute specifically devoted to Bitchen Science. Idiocy, it seems, has metastasized throughout the government science establishment. Radiation therapy is in order.

I first started getting wind of a possible moron crisis in Bitchen Science last month, when a friend who's a reporter at the New Orleans Times Picayune told me about a story he'd been working on. Tulane University had sold excess research cadavers to a New York broker, and Stewart Yerton followed the money all the way to the Army. Soldiers had fitted the poor dead grandpas with experimental land-mine-resistant shoes and, in a series of gory blasts, set back immeasurably the cause of donating bodies to science. Now, I know soldiers love blowing up bodies. And that's OK. But do people donating their bodies to "science" really imagine flying heavenward in millions of tiny pieces? Even Australia, a country otherwise so backward that most of it's called "Outback," has developed artificial limbs specifically for army testing of land-mine boots.

Last month the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which during a cleverer era birthed the Internet -- conduced a $1 million contest called the Grand Challenge. Self-guided vehicles, some of them built by academic teams from the Bay Area, were supposed to traverse more than 140 miles of California desert. This way, DARPA hoped to advance science's understanding of a future race of robo-warriors. But the challenge proved too grand: Only a few entrants were smart enough to make it more than a few hundred yards before tipping, crashing, or otherwise failing. The best warbot advanced only seven miles.

I was about to chalk these fiascoes up to the sometimes halting nature of progress, rather than brain disease in government science circles. But then I learned about the Girvan Institute of Technology, a partially NASA-funded research incubator specifically dedicated to advancing Bitchen Science. Located at NASA's Ames Research Center, down the Peninsula in Mountain View, GIT was supposed to give a head start to futuristic products, building on the legend of NASA-linked consumer goods such as Tang, Velcro, and Therapedic mattresses. But while powdered orange drinks and laceless baby shoes are essential parts of American life, the cronyism, diversion of funds, and silly-seeming products spawned by Girvan were viewed by federal investigators as something America could do without.

NASA's inspector general released a report in February announcing that GIT had been shut down after auditors showed that Ames insiders had awarded, without competitive bidding, a public-private contract to set up Girvan to a professor with apparent personal ties to agency bureaucrats. After that, the auditors found, costs escalated 1,000 percent, from an originally-agreed-upon $600,000 to $6.9 million. NASA, which was supposed to provide just 23 percent of the seed capital, quickly ended up providing 92 percent of Girvan's funding.

GIT's output included a start-up bottled water company and a venture fund dedicated to buying up Brazilian stocks. Perhaps they were called astro-equities.

The Girvan mess did include some interesting projects. There was a firm called Technosis, which made "ShockRounds," bullets that upon impact were designed to give off an electric charge. (I've never been shot at, but I'm told regular bullets hurt quite enough.) There was Tibion, which hoped to eventually make motorized pants -- actually, automatic knees whose gears and related paraphernalia stuck out eight inches on either side. Publicity materials hypothesized that with a few tweaks, these contraptions might become space pants. Astronauts could engage a function that would make the knees feel like they were trying to walk backward. This way, astronaut duties would become more strenuous and keep zero-gravity muscles from going soft.

Useful perhaps, but certainly not the next Velcro.

So the next time you hear someone harp about how our president is sabotaging fields such as fighting AIDS and leukemia, preserving the environment, and halting global warming, don't yawn. His anti-science attitude may be harming science that really matters. He may be postponing the day when our children have pet robo-warriors and all wear high-tech Jesus boots.

Matt, We Hardly Knew Ye

I'm going to miss not being able to cast yet another vote in November for Matt Gonzalez, who has represented my neighborhood on the Board of Supervisors. His declared opponents in the District 5 race -- neighborhood dog-freedom zealot Tys Sniffen and real estate broker Joe Blue -- were such trifles that I considered a vote for Gonzalez a slam-dunk. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that Gonzalez's decision against running for another term is positive news for San Francisco.

The group of moneymen and special interests that had formed around Gonzalez's mayoral bid last fall -- and which remained together to defeat the pro-housing Proposition J in March -- was a particularly noxious one that appeared poised to stink up city politics for years to come. Residential Builders Association chief Joe O'Donoghue and permit expeditor Walter Wong financed a strange-bedfellows coalition whose shock troops came from city employee unions, nonprofit developers such as Calvin Welch, and poverty entrepreneurs like Randy Shaw. This group was ready to launch a recall of Gavin Newsom before the mayor's decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses sidetracked it. Now, these self-styled "progressives" seem prepared to fight Newsom inch by inch as the mayor introduces proposals such as budget reform and streamlining city services.

I've written that the mayor has yet to demonstrate whether or not he is serious about fulfilling campaign promises such as reforming city government, alleviating homelessness, or easing San Francisco's housing shortage. But Newsom's opponents, who had been providing money and political support to Gonzalez, have repeatedly demonstrated their interest in halting these sorts of reforms.

While Gonzalez may have been ambivalent about backing the worst of the O'Donoghue/Wong camp's intentions, he in fact served as an effective rallying point, and in so doing furthered their designs. I'll certainly miss having Matt Gonzalez represent my neighborhood at the Board of Supervisors. But I'll grit my teeth and vote for a lesser politician in his stead knowing Gonzalez's departure was for the best.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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