PART IV
Conclusion

Plasma science is a diverse enterprise spanning many of the fields of science and technology. Plasmas of interest range over tens of orders of magnitude in temperature and density—from the tenuous plasmas of the ionosphere to the ultradense plasmas created in inertial confinement fusion, and from the cool, chemical plasmas used in the plasma processing of semiconductors to the thermonuclear plasmas created in magnetic confinement fusion devices. In this report, the panel has specifically assessed the diverse subfields of low-temperature plasmas, nonneutral plasmas, magnetic and inertial confinement fusion, beams, accelerators and coherent radiation sources, and space and astrophysical plasmas. Each subfield is making important contributions to our society, and much can be expected of each of these enterprises in the future.

In today's fiscally constrained environment, with major pressures to reduce federal spending, it is impractical to expect significant increases in funding. However, it is important for government decision-makers, both in the executive branch and in Congress, to understand the value of plasma science and to recognize that some relatively minor steps can produce significant long-term gains for the United States. Plasma science is exactly the type of scientific field that a recent National Academy of Sciences report1 stresses the United States should support:

1  

National Academy of Sciences, Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1993, p. 20.



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Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications PART IV Conclusion Plasma science is a diverse enterprise spanning many of the fields of science and technology. Plasmas of interest range over tens of orders of magnitude in temperature and density—from the tenuous plasmas of the ionosphere to the ultradense plasmas created in inertial confinement fusion, and from the cool, chemical plasmas used in the plasma processing of semiconductors to the thermonuclear plasmas created in magnetic confinement fusion devices. In this report, the panel has specifically assessed the diverse subfields of low-temperature plasmas, nonneutral plasmas, magnetic and inertial confinement fusion, beams, accelerators and coherent radiation sources, and space and astrophysical plasmas. Each subfield is making important contributions to our society, and much can be expected of each of these enterprises in the future. In today's fiscally constrained environment, with major pressures to reduce federal spending, it is impractical to expect significant increases in funding. However, it is important for government decision-makers, both in the executive branch and in Congress, to understand the value of plasma science and to recognize that some relatively minor steps can produce significant long-term gains for the United States. Plasma science is exactly the type of scientific field that a recent National Academy of Sciences report1 stresses the United States should support: 1   National Academy of Sciences, Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1993, p. 20.

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Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications The United States should maintain clear leadership in some major areas of science.… among the criteria … are the following: … the field affects other areas of science disproportionately and therefore has a multiplicative effect on other scientific advances.… The great diversity of the subfields and applications of plasma science poses significant challenges to ensuring the coordination of activities, the funding of research and development, and even the recognition of the contributions that plasma science makes to our society. Given this great diversity, one of the panel's central recommendations is that there is a need for increased coordination of the support for plasma-related science and technology. The central theme of this report is that while plasma science has contributed significantly to our society and will continue to do so, it is not adequately recognized as a scientific discipline. Consequently, the basic aspects of plasma science are not adequately supported, and this is threatening the fundamental health and efficiency of our entire effort in plasma science and technology. Although the applications of plasma science are in reasonably good health, the same cannot be said for the underlying, basic plasma science. One of the central conclusions of the Brinkman report, Physics Through the 1990s,2 was that there was a critical need for increased support of basic plasma science. If anything, this is an even greater concern today, particularly in the area of basic plasma experimentation. The panel's conclusion is that structures for the adequate support of basic plasma science are absent across most of the subfields assessed. Thus one of the panel's central findings is that if the nation's investment in plasma science is to be effectively utilized, this deficiency must be remedied. Given the stringent budgetary considerations that can be expected for the foreseeable future, any recommendation must necessarily be modest in scope and motivated by the most pressing needs. With this in mind, one of the panel's central recommendations is to point out two agencies in which increased support of basic plasma science could be of enormous benefit to the entire field. Increased support for basic experimental plasma science in the National Science Foundation (NSF) would have great impact on a wide variety of applications. This support for broad-based basic research is most in keeping with NSF's charter, and plasma experiment is singled out because it is identified as the most critical need. The nation's largest investment in plasma science is in the area of magnetic confinement fusion research and development, sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE). This program would benefit enormously from increased support of basic plasma science. In addition, the DOE sponsors support for many other 2   National Research Council, Plasmas and Fluids, in the series Physics Through the 1990s, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1986.

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Plasma Science: From Fundamental Research to Technological Applications important energy-related applications of plasma science. Thus, the panel concludes that increased support for basic experimental plasma science by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences in DOE would provide a critical addition to the entire plasma science enterprise in the United States. The panel concludes that the most critical need is in the area of basic plasma experimentation. In order to rectify this present lack of support, the panel recommends that approximately $15 million per year be provided, and continued in future years, for university-scale experiments. With regard to the subfields and applications assessed, the panel found that, in general, larger programs had fared better than individual and small-group efforts. Typically, it is these smaller activities that have provided a disproportionately large share of the new concepts, new inventions, and new ideas. Thus, the panel recommends reassessment of the relative allocation between larger focused research programs and individual-investigator and small-group activities. The panel identified two steps that could be taken by the plasma science community to improve the health of plasma science in the United States. The panel concludes that there is a need for the plasma science community to work for increased "plasma literacy" in our prospective scientists and engineers. The panel recommends that the community encourage courses in basic plasma science at the undergraduate level. The panel also recommends that the community work to make the case for tenure-track recognition of plasma science as an academic discipline. Plasma science has made significant contributions to our society and can be expected to continue to do so. The panel concludes that the few changes described above, although small in comparison with the total support of plasma science and technology in the United States, could aid immeasurably in ensuring that the potential of plasma science to contribute to our society is fully exploited.

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