Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the horrendous cost of pursuing the “war on terror” may give his followers cause for celebration
WHEN Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, many commentators saw it as a turning point in the war on terror. However, a host of measures suggest that bin Laden’s goal – to strike a long-lasting blow to the system of government of the US and to the health and well-being of its citizens – may have been achieved.
Last month, the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, released a report entitled “Costs of War“, which estimates the cumulative cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be up to $4 trillion.
What has this vast amount of money achieved? Both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rank low in political freedom, warlords continue to control much of Afghanistan, and gender and ethnic segregation in Iraq are now worse than they were before 2001.
At the same time, the US economy is in trouble. Unless the country’s debt ceiling is raised by 2 August, the US will default on several of its major financial commitments. Many of the key programmes that contribute to the quality of life of most Americans are under threat.
From a scientific perspective, the appropriations bills now before Congress suggest that the US’s dire fiscal straits will inflict long-term damage to its technical leadership.
The House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology has recommended cancelling the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the fabulously successful Hubble Space Telescope, because of a cost overrun of $1.6 billion. If this project is cancelled, once Hubble reaches the end of its working life in 2014 we will lose our chance to witness the first moment in cosmic history when the sky lit up with stars, less than a billion years after the big bang.
Beyond the direct loss to science, we need to ask what the next generation of bright minds will lose. The remarkable images captured by Hubble have inspired a generation of people to dream about the universe and its myriad possibilities, and have doubtless inspired youngsters to consider a career in science.
For those of a more practical bent, funding for energy efficiency and renewables could be cut by a whopping 27.3 per cent. It is hard to imagine an applied research programme that is more relevant and important to the health and security of our society.
Cutting that funding is likely to have economic consequences too. In this highly competitive world, the country that leads the research and development in these areas will gain a huge advantage. One only has to consider the fraction of the US’s gross domestic product that resulted from R&D a generation or two ago into technologies ranging from the transistor to the microchip.
If, as a consequence of a decade of unprecedented military spending, we are prepared to give up our grandest intellectual dreams while at the same time cutting efforts to solve the chief technological challenges we face, have we not lost far more than we may have we won?
Lawrence Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in Tempe. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s life in science was published in March (W. W. Norton & Co)