Harold Furth could see the hard times coming. Oil prices were dropping and, with them, the prospects for funding research into alternative energies such as fusion, his specialty. So, like others in his field during the early 1980s, the head of the Princeton Plasma Laboratory started promoting his program as good basic research, rather than as the pursuit of a working fusion reactor.

Meanwhile, researchers in pursuit of a malaria vaccine had their own troubles. Serious scientific obstacles had emerged, and the field was dissolving in chaos. Faced with Draconian funding cuts in recent years, policymakers like biochemist Charles Chambers at the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) responded in a manner similar to Furth’s: Rather than emphasizing the prospects of a working vaccine in the foreseeable future, they began touting the value of their malaria studies to basic immunological research.

And throughout the last two decades, intelligence pioneer John...

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