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"Meta" Researcher Champions New Funding Sources for Independent Science

Researchers in every field of science have felt the pinch in recent years, as federal funding for research continues to erode in the wake of Congressional budget cuts. Along with the loss of expensive large-scale projects like the Superconducting Super Collider, a host of small, independent researchers have found themselves increasingly squeezed out by more popular, mainstream scientific theories with greater political clout. It was to fill this niche that Tom Van Flandern, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, founded Meta Research, Inc., in 1991, with the support of a handful of colleagues.

Meta Research is a scientific non-profit corporation that supports and encourages research or observations in connection with astronomical theories that are in accord with observations and experiment, add insight or understanding, and make testable predictions, but that are not otherwise supported solely because they lie outside the mainstream of astronomical theories. It publishes a quarterly bulletin for members and subscribers and organizes expeditions to observe total eclipses of the sun. Upcoming expeditions are planned for the Galapagos Islands in February 1998, and for Europe in August 1999.

Van Flandern has become something of a champion for theories outside the mainstream, despite conventional beginnings. After receiving a B.S. in mathematics with a minor in physics, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in astronomy from Yale University in 1969, specializing in celestial mechanics under the prominent dynamicist Dirk Brower. In addition to astrophysics and dynamics, his research also encompasses work in gravitation and relativity. He spent his early career as a staff scientist at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, publishing papers in respected journals and attending scientific meetings.

His disenchantment with the mainstream of science began in the late 1970s, when he was asked to review a paper postulating that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter had originated from an exploded planet, rather than a planet that had never formed, as more mainstream theories hypothesized. To his surprise, Van Flandern concluded that considerable evidence existed in support of this radically different theory. He went on to use the model to predict that the asteroids would have satellites - something that would be impossible under prevailing theoretical models.

Van Flandern's prediction was largely scoffed at by colleagues when he presented it to the International Astronomical Union in 1991. However, when the Galileo Spacecraft visited the asteroid belt in April 1993, it did indeed find a large satellite of about one-and-a-half kilometers orbitting the 30-kilometer asteroid Ida. "When you predict something that everybody says can't be and yet it still turns out to be correct, you can be pretty sure you're on the right track," he says of his success.

Increasingly frustrated with the unwillingness of his colleagues to consider new ideas, Van Flandern finally left the Observatory in 1983, working as a computer consultant while researching his book, Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets, published in 1991 by North Atlantic Books. He has been affiliated with the University of Maryland's Department of Physics and Astronomy as a research associate since 1992, and is presently working on improving the accuracy of the Global Positioning System.

When asked why he and his colleagues ultimately decide to found Meta Research as an alternative to federal funding, Van Flandern responded, "It used to be the case that every individual, university or government organization that was interested funded its own research. Through the 1960s and especially the 1970s, funding for scientific research, and particularly in my field of astronomy, gradually began to be channeled through grants from NASA or the National Science Foundation. Everybody has become dependent on government funding for research. It was argued initially that this was a good thing, because it ended a great deal of redundancy and waste. But when research budgets tightened in the mid-1980s and cutbacks became necessary, the first projects to go were those that were alternatives to mainstream ideas. However, every once in a while in science, as we know, one of those mainstream models gets overthrown. The possiblity of that had effectively been eliminated. So Meta Research was our solution to the problem of how to fund research outside that lies the mainstream of science.

How does Van Flandern differentiate between genuinely valid alternative ideas and what might be called pseudo-science or from misguided zealots? He says "by strict adherence to the principles of the scientific method. These include the following: (1) it must give new insight and understanding, (2) it cannot be contradicted by any known observation or experiment, and (3) it must make successful new predictions that are most unlikely to be true unless the model making them is true. Things that have a 50/50 chance of being right anyway don't count for much. Our seven-member board follows these principles when reviewing proposals for funding. There is some value in looking at these alternative ideas, because even though 99 percent of them are wrong, you always learn something from the exercise of critiquing them and trying to show exactly why they are wrong. Most importantly, when you find that one percent that has merit, it will take you in a more useful, valuable direction leading to new insights more important than anything you could do in the mainstream at the frontiers of the field."

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin