Fundamental science

Complex problems require complex solutions

Basic and applied scientific research are needed to solve the world’s problems.


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In a world facing pressing problems—a sluggish economy, starving people, a rapidly changing climate, growing unrest in various parts of the world, species becoming extinct at high rates—money to address these problems is scarce and our focus fractured. These are grave concerns. They deserve thoughtful solutions. The need for strong commitment to scientific research has never been greater. While it may seem luxurious to toil and pursue basic science when problems demanding solutions appear at every turn, it is more important than ever to keep our eye on the ball and our scientists in the lab. The College of Science uses a multi-pronged approach, pursuing fundamental research as well as hybrid, or use-inspired basic research.

Although the distractions of immediate crises are hard to avoid, it is important to remain focused on investing in fundamental research with long term albeit unknown benefits.  If it becomes no one’s priority, we will face irreversible consequences. A multi-pronged research approach is necessary for three reasons:  the world has changed since public investment in research; research needs to be driven by the needs of both applied and basic science; and practical benefits have accrued from basic as well as applied science with substantial benefits to society.

First, the world has changed since 1945. Vannevar Bush’s noteworthy paper Science—The Endless Frontier, a report to President Truman, offers a historical perspective. Bush argued that basic research was important to national survival for both military and commercial reasons, requiring sustained government support for science and technology. The report defined research as “basic” or “applied” and this delineation has influenced much of science and technology policy in the United States over the past seven decades, according to the article “RIP: The Basic/Applied Research Dichotomy” that appeared in Issues in Science and Technology in November 2013.

Secondly, research needs to be driven by the needs of both applied and basic science. At a recent Congressional hearing, Vinton Cerf, a pioneer in the development of the Internet, said, “Government support for basic and applied research is crucial. Not only does it bring great civil and economic benefits, but the government also has the unique capacity to sustain this kind of effort.” Sustained support will provide the next generation of scientists with the resources to move the country forward.

Recent momentum is encouraging. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014 extends 2007 legislation to support critical research at government agencies and at non-government research institutions and to advance the best research from the lab to the marketplace. As the bill states, R&D investments support new industries, drive job creation and advance technology; secondly, scientific and technological progress is directly linked to increased prosperity, supporting a healthy economy.

Today the federal government funds 60% of all basic research in the country, according to November 2013 data reported in the Washington Post. Too often the role of basic research, particularly basic research, in scientific and technological advancement has been undervalued, according to a recent report, “Restoring the foundation: The vital role of research in preserving the American dream” published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Lastly, practical benefits have accrued from basic as well as applied research. In a 1988 national radio address, President Reagan said “Although basic research does not begin with a particular practical goal, when you look at the results over the years, it ends up being one of the most practical things government does… Major industries, including TV, communications and computer industries, wouldn’t be where they are today without developments that began with basic research.”

More than 25 years later, Neal Lane, former Director of the National Science Foundation, reiterated those sentiments in his Congressional testimony this summer:

“As President Reagan and other presidents have realized, virtually every new technology is traceable to a research discovery or series of discoveries, often made by individuals having no idea how their research might help create jobs and benefit millions of people….New knowledge and technologies…are the lifeblood of today’s accelerating high-tech, knowledge-based economy.”

Hunter Rawlings, president of the American Association of Universities, observed that the “fundamental technologies that underlie today’s remarkable consumer electronics, including GPS, multi-touch screens, LCD displays, lithium-ion batteries and cellular networks, were all derived from research conducted in universities and government laboratories and supported by the federal government.”

But industry can’t support the nation’s basic research on its own, according to the proposed America COMPETES Reauthorization bill. With increased competition, fewer corporations are significantly investing in basic research, due to its risky nature, long-term investment, and tip off to the competitors, according to the bill.

“If you look at total R&D growth, including the corporate and government side, the U.S. is now at the low end,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in a November article in the Washington Post.

Societal needs change and problems develop, often fast and without warning. To develop innovative solutions, governments often turn to people with fundamental training:  researchers who are broad thinkers with skill sets that reflect holistic thinking and who can respond quickly to emerging problems.

Breakthroughs

The following are examples of breakthroughs happening unexpectedly because of fundamental research.

ChimpanzeeStudying monkeys’ social behaviors and eating habits led to insights into HIV (Radiolab: Patient Zero, November 2011)

AlgaeResearch into how algae move toward light paved the way for optogenetics—using light and genetically encoded light-sensitive proteins to control brain cells (Nature 2010 Method of the Year).

Artist's rendition of a black holeBlack hole research in the 90s revealed how to reduce radio wave interference – giving us WiFi and revolutionizing the way the world uses computers (ICRAR award).

New York City skylineA 1965 optometry study informed architecture and saved lives on 9/11 (APA Monitor, January 2003).

Our responsibility as a land grant university

The College of Science is deeply committed to advancing science in order to have healthy people living on a healthy planet and in a healthy economy.

“We balance a land grant institution’s commitment to excellence in science and scholarship with the need to solve society’s greatest problems,” said College of Science Sastry Pantula. “Our faculty are engaged in research that positively impacts people’s lives and are dedicated to teaching and inspiring our students, the future leaders in science. We request that our alumni and friends advocate for investment in fundamental science.”

To quote Lane again, “If our country is to remain strong and prosperous and a land of rewarding jobs, we need to understand this basic investment principle in America’s future: no science, no growth.”

For OSU to be strong, Science needs to be more than strong—it needs to be outstanding, says Pantula. “Basic research in science passes the baton to others. But the science remains an invisible backbone with an impeccable impact.”

Read the stories of how our faculty are contributing to long-term scientific progress in our communities in Oregon, the nation and around the world.

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