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Policy Changes Hamper Aeronautics Research Army Scientist Says at UTSI

Aeronautics is still a major area for basic research, but over the past 25 years significant changes in funding and research policy have hampered its application in this country, Frank Caradonna says.

“Not only have we cut back on wind tunnels when we reduced our resources, we also cut back on ways of thinking,” the senior scientist with the Army Rotorcraft Group at Moffett Field, Calif., said in a recent seminar and interview at The University of Tennessee Space Institute.

Instead of withdrawing from research, he says government must be a major player – the “third leg” of a theoretical “stool” that rests on academia to “pull” in new people and thoughts, industry to “push” or use the ideas, and government to provide leadership and continuity to bridge the gap.

“We’ve taken the third leg away,” Caradonna insists. “Government’s been increasingly leaving basic research to industry and academia, and industry, the bigger player, is mainly motivated by the bottom line and the stockholders.”

“Without strong research going on in the government,” he continued, “the government cannot be smart enough or strong enough to manage research and give it national direction. Perhaps the idea is that if we need direction, we’ll just go buy some; that is, get it from industry or academia. Outside advice is often a healthy thing, but it can’t be the norm. You need independence of thought; otherwise you don’t understand what’s happening. The only way government can guide research well is to be genuinely involved in the research process.”

The scientist emphasized the necessity of using “both tools” – computers and wind tunnels. He started his career by focusing on the “new” Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), and “that led me into doing wind tunnel research. I had to design wind tunnel tests. Nobody was there telling me this. I was just following what the problem told me to do. People need to be free to follow the problem and to do the right thing. Computers led me to wind tunnels, and that’s been the story of my whole life. We need both resources. When you have unsolved problems, you need all your tools. There’s no technical basis for saying that you can use this tool but not that one. No one is smart enough to make such a decision.”

He advocates this formula: “Work hard to get the best people you can possibly get and then give them the tools to do their job. One of the tools is the right environment. The statement that we don’t have resources can be disputed, but the question is: Do we have the will? We are the United States of America!”

Caradonna sees the problem starting roughly 25 years ago with the “idea that we have to be more business like, more efficient. People said, ‘We have to manage our resources more carefully and have well focused programs.’ Then they decided that wind tunnels were awfully expensive and asked, ‘Can’t we just do that stuff with CFD?’

“In the ‘70’s I first heard use of the words ‘research management’ in the sense of a well-defined discipline. And I saw it become a reality in the 80’s, and it has grown ever since. This is an odd combination of words because management assumes you know what you have to do, what you have to work with, and it’s simply a matter of organization. Basic research says, ‘I don’t know what the answers are,’ and to say you’re ‘managing’ research – those two words are like oil and water; they don’t mix – at least not at the basic level. It’s not toasters we’re making, not sausages, but things we don’t know yet what they are. All we know is that there are unsolved problems.” This type of management, he says, often leads to doing the safe thing — conformity.

Skeptical of promises to re-open wind tunnels at a later time, Caradonna said, “A wind tunnel is not just a piece of metal with a propeller in it. When they eliminate wind tunnels, they also eliminate a lot of people who think in basic ways – all the people who run them and use them as tools to answer questions. This is something that people haven’t noticed – a wind tunnel is actually a community of people who are thinking about a lot of problems and they do not all think alike.”

He commended John Steinhoff, UTSI professor, as one who “has a very unique way of thinking, and it’s led him to notice some things that everyone else has passed up. These ideas might well transform the way we do Computational Fluid Dynamics, and they encourage me that there are many new ways to treat the decades-old problems of aerodynamics.”

Optimistic? Caradonna is not sure. There is a need, he says, and work will continue on aeronautical problems, “but I don’t know if the United States will stay focused on them. Some other country might do it. Europe hasn’t diminished aeronautics. China and some others don’t look at it the same way as we do. I don’t know if the U.S. will be a leader in this. With the losses in our science and engineering infrastructure, I don’t even know if we could build a Saturn today. There is much to question.”

Americans have been “warped by our successes,” Caradonna says. “With all the wealth we have acquired, it is necessary to manage it well. But the current style of management doesn’t leave enough room to discover and play with new ideas. So new ideas may not catch on or even get a chance to be born. We reduce basic research to a project, with a strictly defined beginning, end, approach and cost. The resulting stagnation is predictable – that’s what the current style of management and resource allocation can do to basic aeronautical research.”