May 012013

Remember The Six Million Dollar Man?

I’m sure most of the engineers of my generation, when they were kids, role-played as the The Six Million Dollar Man. After all, not only he is “better, stronger, and faster” but he is also human, a much more realistic goal for a 6-year-old than a flying alien in unitard. I’m not trying to be anti-Kryptonian here; I just think it’s good to have a maskless, capeless human super hero role model.

Now I brought him up because 70s cyborg-crazed fiction authors thought that $6 million could possibly get you a pair of legs that can clock 60 mph, a right arm that can lift a few tons, and an eye that lets you zoom 20x while recording video in infrared. As I’m writing these, I get a little depressed personally, because we are not even close to doing any of these after 40 years (especially for the inflation adjusted mere $31 million). Sure, we now carry tiny computers that can give us the latest gossip on Aston Kutcher or stream epic skate boarding accidents in high definition but no bionic legs.

So honestly, after 40 years, do we have the technology to rebuild people as Richard Anderson famously declaimed in 1973? If we look at the latest news on tissue engineering, we can see that so far we’ve built an ear (no, not a functional one; but the living cartilaginous shell shaped like an earlobe). We also have retinal implants that projects the outline of objects to the cortex of the patients giving them a sense of vision similar to a bat’s. And robotic arms that can be controlled by the patient’s own neuronal activity. These are impressive achievements, each of them products of decades of hard work, dedication and ingenuity. But they are far from the cyborgs we’ve been promised in Hollywood movies. So how did actual progress fall so short of imagination?

Yes, we dropped to ball on funding, that’s for sure. For example, annual cost for air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan at the peak of respective conflicts was on par with the entire annual budget of National Institutes of Health, i.e. complete biological and clinical research budget of the Federal Government. Even with the proposed annual increases and the much-debated Recovery Act in 2010, the entire engineering division of the National Science Foundation spent less than half of the fuel used by our troops in Afghanistan in 2010.

Of course, we shouldn’t spend research dollars just to create a super awesome spy with all-powerful implants, but the same research, in principle, may help veterans of the last two wars (not to mention millions of blind, deaf and disabled Americans). So let’s expand the funding perspective a little more, and spice up the conversation by adding cancer, Alzheimer’s and other ailments to the mix. What would it take to bring about the end of one of these diseases, or to come up with an artificial heart (that does not run on nuclear power, please)? Sequester-mongers may not be aware, but at its peak, the Apollo Program used up about 2.2% of the entire Federal budget. Today, that would be roughly $77 billion, i.e. twice our current research spending. And by “our research spending,” I mean spending on everything: from alternative energy to zoology.

If we use another metric, say percent share of gross national product, we should note that both the Apollo Program and the Manhattan Project took about 0.4% of the GDP at their peak. For a single research program, that is pretty hefty, especially when we consider that the entire Federal R&D spending will be around 0.1% of the GDP in 2013. In other words, we are trying to cure cancer, which some may consider harder than the moon landing and the atomic bomb combined, yet we are spending 5% of what we did for the Manhattan Project and 4% of the Apollo Program.

Yes, we are still coming up with things like spleen-on-a-chip because smart people all over the world still come to America to do what they love: science. Let’s hope that this deficit/sequester mania doesn’t change that trend, because American science and engineering research enterprise has been operating with razor thin margins for a while, and we are setting ourselves up for failure.


Evren U. Azeloglu, Ph.D.
Guest Blogger, ASME Met Section Executive Committee



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