Nobel Laureates Used NSF Funds for Winning Research
In 1996, the National Science Foundation had a
banner year for Nobel Prizes. Five of the six Americans who won science
prizes had used NSF funds while conducting their award-winning research.
In 1985, Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Harry Kroto discovered that
60 carbon atoms can configure themselves in a soccer-ball-shaped molecule.
Smalley and Curl from Rice University and Kroto from England's University
of Sussex called this third molecular form of carbon (the first two being
diamond and graphite) a "buckminsterfullerene," in honor of architect
Buckminster Fuller who worked with geodesic domes. Within minutes, the
molecule acquired the affectionate nickname Bucky.
"Buckyballs," it turns out, are extraordinarily stable and impervious
to radiation and chemical destruction. They may be the key to new, super-strong
building materials, solar cells and superconductors.
In 1971, physicists David Lee, Robert Richardson and Douglas Osheroff
were at Cornell University when they discovered that, at extremely low
temperatures, helium-3 has three superfluid phases, states in which atoms
move in a coordinated manner and liquid can flow without resistance caused
by friction. Their discovery has opened the door for studies in low-temperature
physics and superconductivity. In addition, the superfluidity of helium-3
showed that nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, could work. Also called
magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, this technique is now widely used
for non-invasive medical diagnoses.
The two groups of researchers won Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics
respectively. They thanked NSF for funding projects that have turned out
to be of great importance to the development of their disciplines.
At the time, however, NSF had no guarantee that these scientists would
find anything at all. The grants were not approvals for strict itineraries,
but rather licenses for qualified researchers to go exploring within set
The system is indispensable for basic research, the five NSF-funded
laureates said at a recent press conference. Basic research is an appropriate
role for the federal government, they added.
"The lead time for discovering fundamental laws of science
and properties in materials in advance of their applications
to modern technology can be very, very long," says Osheroff,
who is now at Stanford University. "If we don't do the fundamental
research--without the expectation that it will have ultimately
some sort of technical application--then there certainly
won't be the technical applications."
The laureates advocated continued funding even though many
studies show a high return rate for investments in science,
suggesting that more businesses would want to invest in research
and development. Actually, business R&D is declining,
due in part to the fact that the returns on discoveries rarely
go to an individual company. Instead, they usually benefit
society as a whole.
Chemist Richard Smalley adds, "The government has a very
large program to fund interstate highways. This is a facility
that is used by everyone. Basic research can be thought of
in the same way. It provides a facility for new discoveries.
And those discoveries can be used by everyone."