Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Societal advances depend on basic science and new technologies

By Robert Birgeneau

Near the end of World War II, in a study entitled “The Endless Frontier,” Vannevar Bush, the true progenitor of the modern research and teaching university, stated that “new products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.” With that historic statement, Vannevar Bush provided the rationale for large scale investment by governments in basic research in universities and the concomitant responsibilities that this implied. What followed was decades of accelerated government investment in U.S. research universities and in basic science.

Today ominous clouds threaten this enlightened vision of the research university. The sequester cuts that reduce federal research funding for the next 10 years will seriously impede scientific discovery and innovation. Public research and teaching universities, traditionally reliant on state funding to support their operations, are doubly challenged because of progressive disinvestments by their states. This is particularly true in my state of California and even more so in Colorado.

Research universities are the primary institutions in which basic research, driven by scientific interest irrespec­tive of possible applications, takes place. In particular, the great industrial laboratories such as Bell Labs, IBM Research and Xerox Parc have passed or greatly faded and the national laboratories are progressively more focused on applications. Thus, universities are now the principal institutions that have long enough time horizons to allow researchers to do the kind of research that is revolutionary, rather than evolutionary.

One of my favorite examples to illustrate this point is the Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS was made pos­sible by the development of atomic clocks, which were first proposed in 1944 by physicist I.I. Rabi. In the 1950s physi­cists Norman Ramsey and Daniel Kleppner were carrying out research to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity by measuring the effects of gravity on time. This work, which required phenomenal accuracy in the measurement of time, inspired them to invent the hydrogen maser atomic clock. One cannot imagine research which is more basic.

As Daniel Kleppner has noted, “Without atomic clocks there would be no GPS, though at the time the clocks were conceived nobody dreamt of a satellite-based global navigation system.” The GPS also required enormous investment to develop a useful new technology, including satellites, microelectronics, time transfer techniques and modern data processing methods. The new GPS technology was initiated in the 1970s by the Navy and taken over in the 1980s by the Air Force, which developed the GPS into an operational navigational system. Today, as we know, the GPS has passed into civilian use and is inexpensively mass produced with enormous impact and benefit to our lives.

The clear lesson is that to achieve transformative advances for society we must invest in long-term basic science and in new technologies, which in turn can be developed into new industries. All three components are needed.

Basic research is overwhelmingly the responsibility of our nation’s research and teaching universities. Our great public research and teaching universities are essential to America’s research productivity and to educating the next generation of scientists and engineers who will in turn become the innovators and entrepreneurs who will develop new technologies and create new industries. In my view, to guarantee the continuing excellence of our great public universities we must reexamine the basic model that public education is the sole responsibility of the states. We need to look to tripartite partnerships between the federal government, state governments and the private sector, including business, foundations and individual philanthropy for supporting the operations of our public research universities.

I am now leading the Lincoln Project, an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to address exactly this issue. We hope that out of the Lincoln Project’s work will come new paradigms for the support of our nation’s great public research and teaching universities. The future of our nation and our ability to innovate, create jobs and support a strong economy rests on the health of our research and teaching universities with the public institutions having the additional responsibility of educating a huge fraction of the nation’s future scientists and engineers drawn from the population quite broadly. America’s competitive advantage in the global economy depends upon their success.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Colorado School of Mines Energy and the Earth Research 2013-14 publication