Sunday, April 6, 2008

Whither basic science?

There was a column in the Tribune this week written by a physicist from U of I which echoed a podcast I heard on Scientific American of an interview with Robert Rosner (head of Argonne National Lab) on the fate of basic scientific research in the U.S.A. and the consequences of it demise. Physics in general and Argonne in particular took a beating in its funding at the hands of our far-thinking Congress, with a number of high-energy physics projects getting chopped.

I could have written the article, although I might have dispensed with the somewhat patronizing couple of lines explaining atoms for a layman, in the sense that it mirrored my own thoughts on the role of science in the development of society. There are two issues here. Is there a sane thinking person alive that disagrees that science is essential for the future prosperity and well-being of the planet? I realize that there are some anti-technology types out there who argue for a return to the simple life and, indeed, Al Gore strikes that pose in his book (which I haven't read of course). But I did say sane thinking. As the article and Rosner both argue, future technology emerges from basic research over a long period and in often unpredictable ways. Examples of the transistor, laser and magnetic resonance all attest to this, having dramatic impacts on every-day life decades after the first laboratory demonstration. The sort of bean-counting short-term financial planning that dominates industry these days could not possibly have foretold those developments. I have had personal experience working with lasers and magnetic resonance which resonate (so to speak) with the arguments for basic research for its own sake. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) dates back to the 30's. However, it wasn't until magnetic technology developed that the technique really took off in the 70's and 80's, and I spent some early research years applying NMR to structural problems. Even then, the wiggly traces on a long sheet of graph paper, which might have profound significance for an arcane topic of chemical interest (and which would provoke hostility from the more synthetically minded chemistry brethren), seemed a long way from every-day importance to society. Yet in 1984 I attended a lecture, at Argonne in fact, on the then fledgling magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The cross-sections of the body obtained using this technique seemed nothing short of miraculous. Now of course MRI is completely routine, 70 years after the first mention of NMR. The nuclear was dropped to avoid scaring the patients. I don't think Bloch, Purcell, Bloembergen and co envisaged MRI machines in hospitals at any time.

Lasers came much later, in the fifties, again very much as research toys. Now of course they are everywhere, in multitudes of applications, in all sizes and powers and colors (of radiation). I don't think Charles Townes thought about DVD players or optical communications or LASIK any time during his work. I spent an interesting few years growing crystals for making new types of laser. I was engaged in that work at Amoco back in the day when those sorts of companies still invested in basic research largely for its own sake. I rather knew the game was up when a group of management consultants hired by Amoco rolled through assessing our capabilities. One of them was a smooth-talking confident youth, a graduate of Cambridge, who had taken a direction in business management. Amoco, recognizing the "error" of their ways, consequently chopped that activity. Shortly thereafter, Amoco itself became subsumed into BP, the higher-ups no doubt pocketing some decent coin. Short term gain, long term damage. I think I am correct in saying that the chairman of Exxon made more money last year as an individual than was spent on all of Amoco's basic research in 1993. Is that progress?

Okay, so support of basic research is essential for producing new technologies that are not predicted from the outset. The other concern is the damage done to the future of science by the lack of people entering it. What is the motivation when they read in the paper that the money is going away? Why should young and intelligent students flog away for years at a hard subject (there is no denying that as much as we try to make it attractive) when prospects are poor?

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