. "In Defense of Basic Research." Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 1994.
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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference
research on electromagnetism contributed directly to the development of modern communications. Investigations in solid-state physics enabled the invention of the transistor. The recombinant DNA technology that led to the biotechnology industry arose from studies of unusual enzymes in bacteria. Mathematics, often regarded as highly abstract, is at the core of applications as diverse as aircraft design, computing, and predictions of climate change. (p. 17)
The Task Force on the Health of Research of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, in a report to the committee in July 1992, expressed doubts about the assertions of the serendipity argument:
A major failing of U.S. science policy has been the absence of institutional mechanisms designed to test the validity of these and related assertions. There are three fundamental reasons for this failure. First, the U.S. research system was designed primarily by and for scientists, and these assertions serve to preserve the autonomy and legitimacy of the research community. Second, it is the researchers themselves who are called upon to evaluate a system which they have little incentive to alter. Third, the economic performance of the United States in the 1950s, 60s and 70s has been construed as a vindication of these science policy principles. (It must be emphasized, however, that the economic preeminence of the U.S. after World War II was virtually a foregone conclusion because the production capacity of most of our economic competitors had been destroyed.)
The suggestion that our scientific enterprise is fundamentally self-serving and may even be a sham is bound to trouble U.S. scientists. Like most of my colleagues, I am well aware that I pursue my personal interest in science at the public's expense. From time to time—particularly after working on some idea that eventually turned into a dead end—I wonder whether the public is getting its money's worth. For every success there are numerous failures. However, recently I learned that research in which I participated years ago has paid off. The story provides one more piece of evidence that basic research can be an excellent investment.
A Case of Serendipity
In the 1950s I studied undergraduate physics at Cambridge University courtesy of a Fulbright fellowship. My tutor, Kenneth F. Smith, was a pioneer of atomic beam research in Great Britain. To provide a little enrichment to the syllabus, Smith explained the workings of magnetic resonance. He mentioned that it could in principle be used to make an atomic clock, possibly one accurate enough to see the effect of the earth's gravity on time, the “gravitational red shift.” The thought that gravity alters time struck me then, as now, as fantastic. The following year I entered graduate school at Harvard University, and when Norman Ramsey proposed that I try out a new idea for a superaccurate atomic clock, I lost no time in getting to work. The art of making an atomic clock fundamentally involves