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Basic Scientific Research and Its Transformational Potential

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of America's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, Research Corporation for Science Advancement. In March, I had the pleasure of celebrating the anniversary at a gala at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where leaders of the scientific community from across the country had gathered for the occasion. Later that night, I ran into Sir Richard Branson at my hotel and joined him for a drink. It was one of those chance encounters that seemed more than coincidental.

The gala was filled with renowned scientists producing the basic cutting-edge research -- often at Nobel Prize-winning levels -- that drives scientific understanding and that Research Corporation for Science Advancement has long championed and funded. Sir Richard represents the commercial application of that science -- especially through his company Virgin Galactic, which plans to provide sub-orbital spaceflights to the paying public, along with suborbital space science missions, from its Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, dedicated in October in New Mexico.

Congressman Randy Hultgren of Illinois, whose Congressional District includes the renowned federal Fermilab, explained the important distinction between basic and applied science recently on Fox Chicago Sunday. He spoke of basic science as "Newtonian" and applied science as "Edisonian." "Newtonian is really how things work," he explained. "Edisonian is applying it to something practical for us to use." He went on to say that "we need both, but Newtonian is really being lost... and that (basic scientific research) is what's made our nation great." The question is, he continued: "Are we going to be a nation that innovates? To do that, you've got to have basic scientific research."

Research Corporation for Science Advancement provides support for basic science, and its funding comes from applied science. Its founder, Frederick Gardner Cottrell, was both a scientist and an inventor, who used the profits from his creation of the electrostatic precipitator -- an early "green" technology that reduced air pollution from smokestacks -- to create the foundation. Through the foundation, he supported early career scientists in basic research that had the potential to be transformational.

He was convinced that high-risk high-reward research held the key to future progress, and his instinct proved right very quickly. The foundation funded the early work of Ernest O. Lawrence, who created the first cyclotron, and Robert Goddard, whose rocket research was instrumental in our nation's eventually putting a man on the moon. In its 100-year history, Research Corporation for Science Advancement has funded the research of 40 Nobel Prize-winners, including E. O. Lawrence.

The foundation also served as an inspiration for the creation of the National Science Foundation, which it predates. One of Research Corporation's Board Members, Vannevar Bush, was instrumental in successfully advocating enactment of the legislation that created the NSF. With the founding of the NSF came the enduring and ongoing debate about how much research and what kind of research the federal government should fund. What should the federal government pay for and what should be left to private industry or foundations?

In his television remarks, Congressman Hultgren echoed the advice of the legendary Vannevar Bush, who wrote a landmark report requested by President Franklin Roosevelt but delivered after Roosevelt's death to President Harry Truman in July of 1945. In the report, titled Science -- The Endless Frontier, Bush wrote:

"The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected... Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn. New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science... A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill."

Frederick Gardner Cottrell hoped that basic research would be just as high-risk high-reward as applied research. He would have viewed Lawrence's cyclotron and Goddard's rocket as just as transformational as Google or the iPad. He would have applauded Sir Richard's commercial application of science, while championing the basic research that underpins it.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement's latest initiative, Scialog, combines all three concepts: basic research, a high-risk high-reward approach, and the potential for commercial applications. It funds grants for basic research - and a regular science dialogue (hence, the name Scialog) among its grantees -- for work on solar energy conversion that could produce transformational results and ultimately commercial applications. It's a unique way of combining the Newtonian and Edisonian approaches in an effort to move science more swiftly to a point where basic research can be translated into "applied" economic drivers.

As our nation's leadership in scientific and technological innovation is challenged as never before, federal funding of basic scientific research remains essential, but that research should be potentially transformational. It should provide the scientific underpinning needed to continue American economic leadership and the job growth on which so many Americans depend.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement - this year.