Cherish those photos of our closest planetary neighbour that the Mars rover Curiosity is beaming back to Earth - the mission to Mars comes with a $2.5-billion price tag. The likelihood of an immediate and favourable return on investment is small.
But it's important that the human race continues to push boundaries, to seek knowledge, to increase our understanding of our world and universe. Not every exploration or research project pays dividends in dollars, but we are enriched nonetheless.
When cash-strapped and deficit-wary governments start looking at ways to trim budgets, research funding is usually one of the first victims. Care must be taken to ensure public dollars are not thrown away recklessly, but it is short-sighted to ditch a program just because it does not bring immediate payback.
Space exploration is a high-cost endeavour, yet it has benefitted all of us in many ways, some more obvious than others. It would be hard to imagine navigating, even in our own city, without global-positioning-system technology, but GPS would not have been possible without the satellites developed in the space program. Communications and the flow of information, too, depend heavily on satellite technology, as do weather forecasting and mineral exploration.
Satellites can even look down on the surface of our planet and help us understand our past better. Images from space have helped detect traces of human activity not visible from Earth, and have revealed conditions that existed in the Sahara Desert a few hundred thousand years before satellites were invented.
Closer to home and in a different direction, University of Victoria researchers and technology are assisting in the search for the lost ships of the Sir John Franklin expedition. The Bluefin-12, UVic's underwater vehicle, will help Parks Canada expand its search for evidence of the two ships and 129 men who set sail in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845.
That will not likely bring financial returns, but the cost of the project is still money well spent. As a society, we waste a lot of money on frivolous entertainments; let's not begrudge funding projects that help us understand our history better. If mysteries from the past are solved, so much the better, but much of value will be learned from the expedition, regardless of the outcome.
Even more valuable is the work being done by UVic's Ocean Networks Canada as it gathers information about the ocean and ocean floor through its Neptune and Venus projects. Through the university's oceanography research, we are deepening our understanding of such things as ocean-climate interactions, seabed dynamics, coastal resources and wave and tidal energy.
At a time when we should be focusing more on the ocean, the federal government seems more concerned about balancing the books than the balance of nature. This spring, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced it was eliminating its ocean-contaminants program and 75 people, including nine people at the Institute of Ocean Sciences at Sidney, lost their jobs. The loss of jobs is bad enough; more serious is the diminished ability to monitor the health of Canada's oceans.
We need explorers - those exploring space, the ocean depths, history, the inner workings of atoms, the mysteries of the human mind. We need research to tackle problems and find solutions.
"Prosperous societies are innovative societies," says the website of the Association of University and Colleges of Canada, "and innovation begins with basic research."
Research can sometimes be costly, but cutting back on research will end up costing more.
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