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Jean-Lou Chameau

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Science Serving Society

Posted: 01/05/12 12:05 AM ET

As president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where science and technology are our raison d'etre, I applaud the Huffington Post on its launch of a section dedicated to advancing science in our society. Serving society through science and technology was important when the modern Caltech was formed in 1920, and we believe it is even more important today as our nation and our world face new and complex challenges. That's why it's important to have forums for discussing policy, highlighting innovation, and breaking new science and technology news.

Science engages society. About two years ago, my wife, Carol, was in a taxicab in the south of France. As is typical in Europe, the taxi driver struck up a conversation with her. As soon as he discovered she was from Caltech, he said, "Oh, I am so sorry about your rover." He went on to explain how he and his family had been following the final steps of Spirit -- one of the two NASA rovers sent to Mars by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is managed by Caltech. Spirit had recently become stuck on the soft soil of the red planet after seven years of continuous operations that were supposed to last only three months, and people around the world were fascinated by its plight.

This anecdote came to mind as we watched the launch of NASA's newest rover, Curiosity, at Cape Canaveral a couple of days after Thanksgiving. Curiosity, which is equipped with a robotic chemistry laboratory, will land on Mars this coming August. The excitement engendered by exploration, innovation, and science is tremendous -- and rarely quite as evident as when a rocket launches, bound for another planet. Science inspires imaginations around the world, connecting us to a journey that takes us beyond our daily lives. When people engage with science, there is more support for its practice, and for its ideas -- and that will lead to discoveries of the things that will change, and maybe even save, our world.

Science enhances our lives and our economy. Space exploration has led to discoveries -- from robotic surgery to food production, from hazard prevention to national security, from cell phones to GPS systems -- that go far beyond the study of space itself. As with other scientific disciplines, these discoveries were not the primary purpose -- or even the recognized secondary benefit -- of the original pursuit. This is one of the things that make science so exhilarating -- the way it routinely expands our fundamental understanding of the world around us and challenges scientists and engineers to accomplish feats previously only dreamed about. If we provide consistent support for scientific pursuits, we will continue to realize these ideas and inventions, and to take advantage of their associated jobs and wealth creation.

Science empowers people. Improving quality of life and creating jobs are obviously very important. However, there is a higher calling for science. One of the privileges of serving as president of Caltech is meeting each year's incoming freshman class, a group of about 240 young men and women. This small group of students arrives at Caltech with big dreams: dreams of being the next Richard Feynman and creating new schools of thought; dreams of being the next Gordon Moore and founding the next Intel; dreams of being the next David Baltimore and preventing HIV or curing cancer; dreams of being the next Elon Musk and building commercial spacecraft and electric cars. At Caltech, we believe in empowering these young people and our faculty so that they can dream with focus and freedom, and find solutions to the most challenging questions. As long as our best minds are given such opportunities, we will do well even in trying times.

As a person who emigrated to the United States, I remain amazed at the brilliant strategy by which the U.S. has promoted fundamental science since World War II. The brilliance comes from viewing science and research as an investment in the future, and has included support for agencies such as the NSF, NASA, the NIH, and the DOE, as well as the encouragement of public-private partnerships. Until recently, no other country fully understood the value of such investment, and it has played a key role in this country's preeminence in technology and wealth creation. The U.S. remains very strong and respected for its accomplishments in science, as exemplified by London's Times Higher Education selecting Caltech as the number one research university in the world. I hope it reflects the importance society places on scientific endeavors.

Science is addressing the tough problems. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned energy science research conducted at Caltech and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as an example of research that could lead to game-changing technologies. Our efforts to develop artificial photosynthesis or create ultra-efficient solar cells or batteries are an investment in the future -- one that is receiving support from the federal government, philanthropists, and industry. But these types of successful public-private partnerships are not unique to Caltech. Such game-changing research is taking place at research universities and national laboratories in all the disciplines of science, and most often at the interface of these disciplines. As long as science remains an investment in our future, there will be extraordinary people who will address the difficult problems our world is facing.

In the early days of Caltech, the Institute would sponsor a float in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena as a way to recruit students. We don't have a float any longer -- unless the car-sized, Mars-bound Curiosity counts -- but we still recruit extraordinary people to work at Caltech and JPL and focus on serving society through their scientific and technological discoveries. It is a good endeavor, a good higher calling.

And that is why I thank the Huffington Post for providing this forum for scientists, engineers, students, entrepreneurs -- and even university presidents -- to explore what science means to society, and to imagine all that we may create and discover as we move to invent our future.