RCSA held its 100th birthday party in the soaring entrance to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. The celebration, with more than 300 guests, among them Nobel laureates and current leaders in science, science policy and academia, took place under a canopy of historically important aircraft, including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, suspended from the museum’s lofty ceiling.
But when keynote speaker Norman R. Augustine, former president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, took the stage, he referred to a small, humble exhibit under glass in a corner of the celebration space – Robert Goddard’s first rockets. They looked more like a high-school metal shop project than the beginnings of humankind’s exploration of space.
Augustine noted that Goddard’s research was funded by Research Corporation (in 1923). “Dr. Goddard’s remarkable rocket, launched in a Massachusetts cabbage patch, reached the astounding altitude of almost half the height reached by the Apollo launch vehicle -- while the Apollo was still standing on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy,” he said.
While Augustine’s punch line drew laughter, it underscored the relation of fundamental scientific research to our technological civilization.
“Scientists performing basic research provide… knowledge that could lead to solutions to many of the challenges that face our world today,” Augustine said.”These challenges include providing affordable healthcare; providing clean, sustainable, affordable energy; protecting us from terrorism; conserving our planet’s natural environment; and building an economy that ensures that everyone who wants a job can have one.”
Scientists and engineers compose only 4 percent of America’s workforce, he noted. “And yet they vastly disproportionately create jobs for the other 96 percent. In fact numerous studies have shown that between half and 85 percent of the growth in our nation’s GDP – read ‘jobs’ – can be attributed to advancements in science and engineering, as has two-thirds of the growth in our productivity.”
By all accounts, he added, these numbers are likely to increase in the years ahead.
“But science doesn’t just happen,” Augustine said. “For one thing, somebody has to pay for it. But investing in science is not particularly compatible with investing in today’s stock market for returns in the next quarter…Science is a long-term proposition, it’s a high-risk proposition. Sometimes it has no payoff at all.” So who, he asked, is going to foot the bill?
Industries, government, universities and foundations – of the four, private foundations are the most capable and willing funders of high-risk, potentially high-reward research, Augustine said. “But the trick, of course, is investing in the right things; even more importantly, investing in the right people. It’s here that Research Corporation truly has excelled, having, for example, assisted more than 40 Nobel laureates in funding their work.”
He cited research indicating young scientists tend to be the most productive, as well as studies indicating that cross-disciplinary research is becoming increasingly essential to solving complex problems. “Prophetically,” Augustine noted,” these are precisely the areas the Foundation has been focused on for many years.”
He observed that RCSA has much to celebrate in its centennial year.
Former RCSA President John P. Schaefer briefly outlined the early history of the Foundation and its founder, Frederick Cottrell, inventor of the electrostatic precipitator. Cottrell dedicated the profits from that device, which cleared particulate matter from industrial smokestacks, to funding research, initially through the Smithsonian Institution, he recounted.
“The Foundation was founded on something he [Cottrell] strongly believed, that invention repays research,” Schaefer said. Very early on, the Foundation began making research available to the public through invention, he added, pointing to such development as rockets, the Van de Graff generator and the cyclotron.
“As money became available in the Twenties and Thirties, more activity was dedicated to giving away money to fund young scientists who had interesting ideas,” he said. The Foundation’s Williams Waterman Fund, which derived millions of dollars in profits from patents associated with synthetic Vitamin B1, underwrote the nation’s first systematic funding of academic-based researchers, Schaefer noted. Also, during WWII, the Foundation created a company called Research Construction that helped to create the first radar devices, he added.
“After the war, the big challenge was to get the scientists and engineers back into their universities and laboratories,” Schaefer said, adding that is when the Foundation began its grants programs in earnest. “And we are probably responsible for getting more people back on the track of teaching and doing research than any other organization in history.”
Because smaller liberal arts colleges were, and still remain, the major source of graduate students in physics, chemistry and other fields of science, during the post-war years the Foundation began encouraging those schools to do create basic research programs. “That has been very successful,” he said.
“Research Corporation has an extraordinary history of converting great ideas into practice, to encouraging young people to go into science, to make new discoveries, to come up with something that no one has seen before, and then turning it over for the benefit of mankind,” Schaefer said. “It’s been a great 100 years.”
Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach (chemistry) and Carl Wieman (physics) both addressed the audience.
Herschbach, a Harvard University professor, said, “The most important thing really is love…With love you know that whatever disappointments or struggles lie behind or ahead, you are blessed. Beyond talent and energy you can bring passion, vision, commitment to whatever you undertake. You can foster in yourself and others the awareness of opportunity, the fellowship of striving, the joy of discovery, the satisfaction of genuine service.”
He recalled realizing during a televised panel discussion capping the 1986 Nobel festivities, that all of the laureates that year had achieved their awards because they had each fallen in love with a captivating idea or a compelling, fundamental question.
As a birthday benediction, Herschbach quoted a favorite saying: “Two things make up the best legacy we can give to coming generations. One is roots, the other is wings. RCSA has lovingly improved posterity by enhancing both roots and wings.”
Wieman, associate director for science and science policy at the White House, said he knows from personal experience what a profound impact a research award can have on the career of a young scientist. “I am one of those Nobel Prize winners whose scientific career was given that all-important first boost by a Research Corporation grant.”
Wieman said he could still clearly recall receiving his RCSA grant as a beginning assistant more than 30 years ago. “At a time when things were looking particularly bleak for me, that award provided critical funding that enabled me to start a new experiment that ultimately established my career.”
Just as important as the money, he added, was RCSA’s statement of confidence in his potential as a scientist.
A passionate teacher of science as well as a researcher, Wieman praised the Foundation’s unique focus on promoting research and teaching as a necessary combination for producing the next generation of top scientists. “Good science teaching has never been more important in history than it is now,” he said. “One of the things research has show us, is that to be a great teacher of science you also have to have a great understanding of what it means to think like a scientist. And that’s really something that’s only possible to do if you are doing science.”
RCSA’s Cottrell Scholars program has been unique in its focus on creating outstanding researchers and teachers, and in building a community of like-minded individuals, Wieman said, adding, “This is really a model we need to be looking toward for faculty across the country.”
On behalf of the Obama Administration, Wieman expressed thanks to RCSA for its 100 years of support for science and science education in the U.S.
Gala program emcee Ira Flatow, a National Public Radio science reporter, joked with Wieman that perhaps the White House would be a good place to stage a science fair. It would be great, he said, if talented young scientists were “going to the same place all those sports stars get to go.”
Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum noted her institution has been recognized by the NSF as one of the leading U.S. institutions for black women who go on to earn PH.D.s in STEM fields. “We are proud of that accomplishment,” she said, “but we are also proud of the catalyzing role RCSA has played in that success.” She recalled the Foundation helped to underwrite Spelman’s state-of-the-art complex designed to support undergraduate research; she also noted RCSA provided funds to assist the college in its chemistry accreditation process.
“As the cutting edge of science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, we too are moving our curriculum in that direction. And again, RCSA was an early supporter of our chemistry and physics departments in their interdisciplinary collaborations,” Tatum said, adding Spelman faculty look forward to future partnerships with the Foundation.
Ralph Cicerone, president of National Academy of Sciences, told the audience that America’s strength in science stems from its great diversity of universities and four year colleges, both public and private. He added the nation’s scientific prowess is also due to the public’s continuous historic support of K-12 education, as well as a notable one-time event, the G.I. Bill, following WWII. The U.S. has also received an enormous advantage from talented emigrant students and scientists, he said, noting that 25 percent of U.S. Nobel laureates were born in other countries. In addition, a half century of federal and state support for research and for universities themselves has also contributed to American achievement.
Private philanthropy, too, has boosted our national scientific endeavors, Cicerone pointed out. “And until recently this philanthropy and foundations like Research Corporation have been uniquely American. There just hasn’t been anything like it anywhere else.”
Now, however, he warned, “We have entered an era of less favorable attitudes and support. A major example is the rapid disinvestment in major research universities. So tonight as we celebrate, we should remind everyone that growing science and growing education opportunities are more important than ever before. And we must provide the key ingredients for a science-based country.”
He called on his listeners to recommit to finding ways to get their fellow citizens to support American science.
American Chemical Society President Bassam Shakhashiri, who also spoke earlier in the day at a congressional briefing sponsored by his organization and RCSA, said solutions to the world’s complex and growing problems require scientists to think outside the box. Finding solutions to these problems, he said, also requires “radical innovation coupled with transformative changes in our education systems.”
Shakhashiri said scientists must be more purposeful in communicating the role of science in our society, and in urging people to work together to solve global problems.
“Science and society have what is essentially a social contract that enables great intellectual achievements, but comes with mutual expectations of benefiting the human condition and protecting our planet,” he said. “I believe it’s not enough for us to be just scientists; we have a responsibility to be citizens as well. As scientist-citizens we have an obligation to use our skills for the benefit of all.”
Shakhashiri called on the friends of RCSA to become scientist-citizens. “And to Research Corporation, I say congratulations, and thank you for helping bring us to where we are now, in the most advanced scientific and technological society in the history of humankind.”
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