Nobel Prizes Underscore Value of Basic Science Research

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Michael Smith of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver
shares the chemistry prize with Kary B. Mullis of La Jolla, Calif.
Dr. Smith developed ways to splice foreign DNA into an organism’s
genetic instructions. Dr. Mullis developed a technique for making
multiple copies of tiny bits of DNA while he was working at Cetus
Corporation in Emeryville, Calif.

Dr. Mullis, for example, developed his DNA multiplication
technique for his own research purposes. It now is standard in
biotechnology. In fact, it is the technique used to clone dinosaur
DNA in the science-fiction film Jurassic Park.

In physics, Joseph H. Taylor and Russell A. Hulse at Princeton
University in Princeton, N.J., share the prize for discovery of,
and work with, a binary pulsar. This is a pair of superdense stars
that emit regular pulses of radiation. Their powerful gravity
allows astronomers to study effects of Einstein’s general theory of
relativity, such as the warping of space time. This has no economic
relevance. But it is a major scientific development.

 

“Nobel Prizes Underscore Value of Basic
Science Research :[All 10/20/93
Edition]. ” Christian Science Monitor (pre-1997
Fulltext)
  [Boston, Mass.] 20  Oct. 1993,
NOPGCIT. Christian Science
Monitor

Copyright Christian Science Monitor Oct
20, 1993

CONGRESSIONAL supporters have saved space-station funding from
its critics. Supporters of the superconducting supercollider
particle accelerator are working to save its funding too.

But who will save United States basic science research?

There’s a loss of faith in the inherent value of unfettered
basic science both within Congress and in the Clinton
administration. In the name of economic competitiveness, the
faithless would try to channel the work of creative scientists into
pursuit of predetermined “strategic” goals.

Taken to the extreme that some competitiveness prophets now
advocate, this policy would emasculate what now is the strongest
basic-research enterprise in the world.

It’s no accident that this year’s Nobel prizes in science are
going largely to scientists in the United States. Decades of
across-the-board support have enabled United States scientists to
be preeminent in every major research field.

Yet the Senate subcommittee that deals with the National Science
Foundation now recommends that at least 60 percent of the agency’s
research programs should be strategic in nature. It warns NSF not
to “shroud curiosity-driven activities under the rubric of
strategic activities.” It further specifies that NSF set annual,
quantifiable performance milestones for each of these programs.

Fortunately, this misguided recommendation is not binding. It
would be micromanagement of the worst sort. Yet it reflects
widespread disenchantment with the pursuit of knowledge for its own
sake.

Senator John Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia – chairman of the
Senate Science, Technology, and Space Committee – has said
science-funding agencies must “be more relevant to
competitiveness.” He added that this view is shared by the Clinton
administration.

The Nobel prizes put that view in perspective.

Philip A. Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and
British biochemist Richard J. Roberts with New England Biolabs in
Massachusetts share the medicine prize for discovering that genetic
instructions are “written” in discontinuous pieces.

Michael Smith of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver
shares the chemistry prize with Kary B. Mullis of La Jolla, Calif.
Dr. Smith developed ways to splice foreign DNA into an organism’s
genetic instructions. Dr. Mullis developed a technique for making
multiple copies of tiny bits of DNA while he was working at Cetus
Corporation in Emeryville, Calif.

These discoveries have revolutionized molecular biology and
biotechnology. Nothing could be more relevant to economic
competitiveness. Yet they, by and large, were made in the pursuit
of “curiosity-driven” research.

Dr. Mullis, for example, developed his DNA multiplication
technique for his own research purposes. It now is standard in
biotechnology. In fact, it is the technique used to clone dinosaur
DNA in the science-fiction film Jurassic Park.

In physics, Joseph H. Taylor and Russell A. Hulse at Princeton
University in Princeton, N.J., share the prize for discovery of,
and work with, a binary pulsar. This is a pair of superdense stars
that emit regular pulses of radiation. Their powerful gravity
allows astronomers to study effects of Einstein’s general theory of
relativity, such as the warping of space time. This has no economic
relevance. But it is a major scientific development.

It’s hard to imagine how such work could proceed if supporting
agencies had to justify it in terms of economic competitiveness and
progress toward predetermined annual milestones.

General basic science lacks the powerful constituencies that the
space station or supercollider enjoy. Neverless, Congress and the
Clinton administration should beware of crippling the creative
research that underlies their country’s scientific strength.

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