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Kavli Prize-Winner and the Future of Science in America

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The biennial Kavli Prizes, which honor research in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, were announced last week at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway. The three million-dollar prizes went to eight scientists from the United States, Great Britain, and Germany - seven of whom are now working in the United States. The prizes recognize transformative research in these three cutting-edge fields and highlight the international leadership of the scientific community in the southwestern United States. Five of the eight prize-winners are based in California or Arizona.

One of the winners in astrophysics was Roger Angel of the University of Arizona, who shared the award with Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz and Raymond Wilson of the European Southern Observatory. Dr. Angel has a longstanding relationship with the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I lead, which is the oldest U.S. foundation devoted solely to science. His connection to the foundation underscores a number of compelling points about the future of science in the United States.

First, research support for early-career scientists is a crucial catalyst to later greatness. Roger Angel received two grants from Research Corporation for Science Advancement within four years of receiving his doctorate. They both focused on exploration of white dwarf stars. Within another six years, he had won the coveted Newton Lacy Pierce Prize, awarded annually by the American Astronomical Society to a young astronomer (less than 36 years of age) for outstanding achievement in observational astronomical research. He was subsequently awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, among other honors.

It is because of the crucial and often-catalytic support of grants early in a scientific career -- and because ground-breaking research is frequently conducted by young scientists -- that our foundation focuses much of its grant-making on early-career scientists and urges the federal government increasingly to do so as well.

Astonishingly, the average age of a researcher winning a first grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major funding source for critically important biomedical research, currently hovers around 42.9 years (as opposed to 35.2 years in 1970). The chance of a young researcher ("age 42 and below") being successful in NIH grant competitions today is a remarkably low 4 percent.
Second, transformational research is crucial to American leadership in the sciences. And in that connection, Roger Angel has played a pivotal role in the creation and development of mirrors for massively large telescopes. The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which Dr. Angel founded around 1980, now has the capability of producing mirrors ranging in size from 1.8 to 8.4 meters.

Interestingly, and not so surprisingly in science, the Lab's pioneering work began literally with a backyard experiment by Dr. Angel. "Curious about the suitability of borosilicate glass (the kind used in glass ovenware) for making honeycomb structures," the Lab's website relates, "he tested the idea by fusing together two custard cups in an improvised kiln. The experiment was a success and led to a series of bigger kilns and small furnaces and, eventually, the spin casting of three 1.8-meter mirrors."

More recently, Dr. Angel and the Lab have cast 6.5-meter mirrors for the Multi-Mirror Telescope and the two Magellan Telescopes, plus two 8.4-meter mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope - a transformative research instrument built through a collaboration of institutions in the United States, Germany and Italy -- in whose development Research Corporation for Science Advancement has played a pivotal role. They are now creating an 8.4-meter mirror for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), for which Research Corporation for Science Advancement is an originating partner. The telescope, under development by an international consortium, is to be located in Chile.

Third, dialog across disciplines should be encouraged in transformational research. For that reason, Research Corporation for Science Advancement has created a multi-year grant challenge called "Scialog®" -- short for science dialog -- designed to accelerate the work of 21st-century science by funding individuals or multi-disciplinary teams to pursue transformative research, in dialog with their fellow grantees, on crucial issues of scientific inquiry. Grant recipients of the initial Scialog round -- entitled "Scialog: Solar Energy Conversion" -- will be announced later this month.

The initial round will provide grants of $100,000 for individual researchers and $250,000 for qualifying teams of researchers. It will focus on funding and building research teams at major U.S. universities to undertake groundbreaking studies in the conversion of sunlight directly into useable forms of energy, such as electricity. The topic was chosen because reliable domestic sources of renewable energy are critically important for U.S. security, global stability and an environmentally sustainable economy, as the horrifying developments of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico make so obviously apparent.

Each Scialog grant will fund research for three years, and grant recipients will attend an annual Scialog closed meeting for researchers at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ. The first of those meetings will take place in October, and Roger Angel will be a keynote speaker. Who better for young scientists to hear from than a transformative award-winning researcher, who received crucial funding support early in his career from Research Corporation for Science Advancement and went on to international acclaim -- and now a Kavli Prize?

The Kavli Prizes are awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, in partnership with the Kavli Foundation -- a private foundation based in California -- and Norway's Ministry of Education and Research. They will be presented at a ceremony in September in Oslo.

I had already planned to attend. Now I'll have the honor of being there with Roger Angel, before we both return to Arizona for Scialog -- with that much more to discuss.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's second-oldest foundation, begun in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.