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To test Einstein's theory, first convince Congress
STANFORD -- To test Einstein's theory of relativity, Stanford scientists on the Gravity Probe B project have had to grapple with eight "near zeros," physicist Francis Everitt told a group of world political, economic and academic leaders Nov. 11.
The scientists have created quartz spheres with near-zero deviation in roundness, uniformity and electrical properties, to be used as gyroscopes that will spin in space at near-zero gravity, temperature, magnetic field and pressure. "The eighth near zero," Everitt quipped, "has been the history of the funding problems that we have had on our program."
Everitt and his co-principal investigator, Bradford Parkinson, gave a seminar in pure science and its serendipitous spin-offs to the advisory council of Stanford's Institute for International Studies. Council members, including former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, now a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the former heads of state of West Germany, Israel and Australia, learned how a satellite launch planned for 1999 may prove or disprove Einstein's theory.
The advisers passed around one of the luminous quartz spheres that are the most perfectly round objects ever made, and learned of a technological spin-off from the project that could make safe, instrument- aided landings on remote airfields affordable to any Third World country.
But the international policymakers were most interested in Gravity Probe B's 31-year "Perils of Pauline" funding history. Everitt said that the NASA-sponsored project, which has cost $100 million so far over the years, has been canceled no fewer than six times and is usually rescued after appeals to Congress from scientists around the world. Several delegates were surprised to learn that funding for large projects of this type must be approved every year, and that continuation depends on annual approvals by Congress. Geoffrey Howe, former deputy prime minister of Great Britain, said such decisions are made in the United Kingdom by the treasury minister, and politicians' opinions are not appreciated.
Everitt replied that a scientist can only present the case for his particular project. "Scientists have traditionally been poor in communicating with the political world," he said. "If we've been successful, it's because we were forced into it. We've also been helped by the support of the scientific community and by the quality of congressional staff people. They sincerely want to find out whether a thing is real or not."
Many members of Congress have been supportive, he said, including former Rep. Tom Campbell, a Stanford law professor recently elected to the California state senate and an adviser to the Stanford institute.
Thomas Odhiambo of Kenya, chairman of the African Academy of Sciences, said, "I wish more scientists would approach political leaders to talk about their projects." Odhiambo, who is in the midst of organizing meetings between African scientists and the legislatures of Kenya and Gambia, asked if the Stanford team had lessons for their colleagues. "This is a global problem, the question of how scientists get funded," he said.
"The first lesson is to realize that members of Congress and their staffers] are human beings capable of thinking, not just 'bureaucrats,' " said Everitt.
Parkinson said the key is taking the time to explain the science, advanced engineering and new technology that comes from an experiment. Congress members and their staffers "force us to articulate it," he said. "It's a good exercise in explaining what we do to the public."
Parkinson advised scientists to keep sponsors informed about the progress of the project. "And never attack anyone else's science. We make it a principle to sell our own project, not denigrate other projects."
George Shultz asked former Israeli President Chaim Herzog how a small country like Israel makes decisions about where to invest its research dollars.
"We have a special agency in the Knesset responsible for budgets," Herzog said. He said most Israeli advances have been in applied science. "[Our laboratories] have industrial offshoots and international partners to take advantage of the research results and market them. This may be an advantage in being a country that is always broke."
Parkinson said Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing is working to license the aircraft navigational aid. Other technologies developed by Gravity Probe B scientists have led to a cryogenic device used in two other space-based scientific experiments and to an ultra-accurate cryogenic thermometer.
"You start out trying to push the borders of technology, and the unexpected benefits expand," he said. And with more than 50 doctoral theses and 200 graduate and undergraduate students involved over the years in creating those technological solutions, he said, "our greatest spin-off has been the curiosity of our students."
But preliminary funding for Gravity Probe B came about because it is asking a basic question about the nature of the universe, Everitt said. "This project combined the magic of Einstein with a technologically intriguing problem. There was a gut feeling that there might be spin-offs. But funding for the fundamental science came first."
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