To make new scientific discoveries, scientists need two things: time and money. One entity that supports discovery through basic research and the time horizon to accomplish it is the federal government.
“Basic research reveals and explains the natural world, from subatomic particles, to the function of the cell, to the structure of the universe,” says Maria T. Zuber, MIT Vice President for Research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. “Even when a basic research result enables a breakthrough product or helps humankind, the payoff is far down stream. The possible utility of a discovery is most often not known at the onset.”
Zuber, who oversees more than a dozen of MIT’s largest research centers including the Research Laboratory for Electronics and the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is also responsible for research administration and policy. She represents MIT’s research interests in Washington, D.C., and advocates for investment in science and technology at the federal level. In 2012 President Obama appointed Zuber to the National Science Board.
Federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), offer grants in basic research to universities and research centers through a competitive, peer-reviewed process. Competition for federal grants is increasing; the funding rate for some agencies is now around 10 percent. Even so, federal agencies are able to fund big projects that answer big questions in a way that science philanthropy or foundations are not set up to do.
For example, 75 percent of philanthropic investment in science is toward medical and biological research, with the majority of this support focused on disease-specific cures. But basic biology research may study the fundamental function of a cell and produce a discovery that leads to an understanding of how an array of diseases, like cancer or Alzheimer’s, develop — and then, how they might be cured. With increasing cuts in the federal budget, Zuber appreciates how philanthropy is covering some of the shortfall, but says it is no substitute for federal funding. “Without continued investment our progress in science and technology will surely decelerate, and so will our economy and quality of life.”
Federal investments in basic research have created the technologies and the markets associated with them for many things we take for granted today. Consider smartphone features, such as GPS, touchscreens, speech recognition, LED lighting, all developed out of federally funded initiatives. “Society is now benefiting from investments in basic research made in preceding decades. Knowledge of basic physics led to the development of radar which was crucial in World War II; advances in the life sciences have resulted in a dramatic increase in human life expectancy, almost doubling from the early 1900s,” reports Zuber.
“There are many mysteries in the world around and beyond us — from the deep structure of Earth’s interior to upper reaches of the atmosphere — for science to solve. We should explore the ocean beneath the surface of Europa, the methane lakes of Titan, the endless numbers of planets around other stars, the nature of dark matter and dark energy and how they relate to the origin of the universe. Closer to home, human health, from cancer to the function of the brain, the health of the planet, clean energy, and national security are examples of the many critically important issues MIT researchers are pursuing that will benefit from investments in basic research.”
At MIT, results from basic research can be on a fast track to practical applications. “Our scientists and technologists work side by side,” says Zuber. “Scientific discoveries can be rapidly embraced into engineering solutions. Our research enterprise and innovation ecosystems depend on the foundation provided by basic research.”