The Science Teacher's Legacy

03/20/2012 11:19 am ET | Updated May 20, 2012
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

During the 100th Anniversary Gala of Research Corporation for Science Advancement last week, Ralph J. Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, asked the assembled group of science luminaries to pause and remember Nobel Prize-winning chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who had died four days earlier and who literally may have saved the world. "Sherry" Rowland had discovered in the 1970s that chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) -- at the time commonly used in aerosol sprays and other household products -- were destroying the Earth's ozone layer. He had publicly championed his scientific discovery, which ultimately led to the Montreal Protocol, a worldwide pledge to eliminate the use of CFCs that has now been signed by 196 nations.

The importance of Sherry Rowland's discovery and legacy is hard to overstate, but there is another reason that remembering him on that occasion was especially appropriate. He had studied at the University of Chicago under, among others, Harold C. Urey, the first of 40 Nobel Prize-winning scientists whose research was funded by Research Corporation for Science Advancement. And that fact underscores the greatest legacy of every science teacher: his or her students.

There was undoubtedly a time when it was assumed that Harold Urey's greatest legacy was his own groundbreaking research on isotopes. Yet this one student went on to save the world. One wonders what his other students did.

By the same token, who is to say that Sherry Rowland's greatest legacy, as enormous as it already seems, is evident today?

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) is the nation's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, and its 100th Anniversary Gala was attended by 300 scientists and other science advocates who understand the importance of high-risk high-reward research, which RCSA has long funded, and the difficulty of coming to terms with its implications. Among those present were six of the Nobel Prize-winners whom RCSA has funded: Charles H. Townes, Dudley Herschbach, Robert F. Curl, Jr., Robert C. Richardson, Carl E. Weiman, and Richard R. Schrock.

RCSA's legacy, in many ways, is its support for transformative research, which includes the work of such legendary scientists as Robert Goddard, Ernest O. Lawrence, Isidor Rabi, and Grote Reber, among many others. But its greatest legacy, too, may be the students who were involved with those legends and others in its funded research and those who later studied under them.

The Gala took place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Permanently displayed in the same room is the world's first liquid-fueled rocket, which Robert Goddard -- with RCSA funding -- had sent 41 feet into the air in 1926. The presence of that rocket could not have been more appropriate, but it also underscored the challenge of acceptance that the results of high-risk high-reward research often face. Goddard's views on the future potential of rocketry, including the possibility of one day reaching the moon, had been widely and repeatedly ridiculed.

Similarly, Sherry Rowland's discovery had taken more than a decade to be accepted and was fiercely challenged by businesses concerned that it would undercut their profits. As Ralph Cicerone, who had been on the faculty of the University of California at Irvine with Sherry Rowland for many years, told The Washington Post, that discovery "was so innovative and went way beyond what people were thinking about and working on."

That's the burden of high-risk high-reward research: it reveals discoveries that the world may not be ready to accept. But it also inspires new generations of innovators and experimenters.

Those new generations are the hope of the world, and we can't tell what their achievements will be in advance. What we do know is that science teachers, at all levels, inspire future scientists. And that is truly their greatest legacy of all.

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