A New Fundamental Science Initiative for MIT

The Birth of Science at MIT
In 1930, the MIT Corporation recognized that the engineer of the future would need a deeper understanding of science, and that this new education could not be provided without a top-tier science faculty. Until that time, MIT did a good job of training people to build and run the machines of the industrial revolution, but they were not prepared to exploit the new knowledge of quantum mechanics, atomic physics, and subatomic physics that were about to reshape technology. Recruiting scientist Karl Compton as MIT’s eleventh President, they made a pivotal decision that would ultimately allow the Institute to participate in the development of radar and to a play a leading role in post-war science and engineering research.

The United States government’s appreciation of the importance of science for national defense led to an exponential growth in the fraction of the federal budget spent on research, which reached a peak during the Apollo program of the 1960s. As defense-research spending declined after the Cold War, federal spending on the life sciences grew rapidly, so that the fraction of the discretionary budget spent on basic research was roughly constant. MIT faculty members followed, by reorienting their research to address the exciting opportunities provided by the revolution in molecular biology. Thus, for over 60 years, MIT has been among the leading science – not just engineering – universities in the world, because of generous funding by the federal government.

However, that generous funding for fundamental science is no longer forthcoming. Austere budgets have kept the growth of funding in the physical sciences far below inflation since the end of the Cold War; the same has been true for the life sciences for the past decade (except for the 2 years of stimulus funding during the Great Recession). What’s more, in times of reduced federal funding, applied research does much better than fundamental science, and MIT’s new sources of funding – from foreign governments and foundations – are focused on applied problems, rather than new discoveries.

 

Why New Scientific Discoveries Are Important
Basic research is the process of creation, and without it, applications vanish.

When initially starting his project aiming to develop an atomic clock, Professor Dan Kleppner never imagined it would someday become the technology at the heart of GPS. “With basic research, you don’t begin to recognize the applications until the discoveries are in hand,” he said recently. “In my view, basic science is the best thing that mankind pursues.”

Richard Schrock, the Frederick G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry who won the Nobel Prize in 2005, has said that by following his curiosity, he developed the catalysts for the chemical reaction now used every day for the green production of pharmaceuticals, fuels, and other synthetic chemicals. The same can be said of Nobel Laureate Bob Horvitz, who, during his curiosity-driven, extensive research on C. elegans, discovered specific genes that determine cell death. Even today, this fundamental finding is revealing new therapies for the treatment of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.

Fundamental scientific research at MIT has led to the discovery of the first human cancer gene, the first experimental confirmation of the existence of the quark, and the first chemical synthesis of penicillin. Each and every one of these discoveries started with curiosity-driven research.

 

Science at MIT Matters
At MIT, our scientific discoveries lead to new technology and move to the marketplace more rapidly than almost anywhere else in the world. One only needs to count the startup companies in Kendall Square that have been founded by MIT science faculty members, students, and postdocs to see how well this is working (see Biotech Renaissance for a partial listing). What’s more, these startups are often founded in collaboration with our colleagues in the School of Engineering.

In his inaugural address, President L. Rafael Reif touched on the critical importance of fundamental science at MIT: “I have no doubt that the people of MIT will continue their passionate pursuit of curiosity-driven, fundamental research. This work is extremely important in and of itself because it expands the body of knowledge. But it also handsomely returns the investment to society, by enabling real-world solutions that we cannot begin to imagine. Unfortunately, these days, important segments of our society do not seem to fully appreciate this connection. But if a society gives up on basic research, it is giving up on its future. Let me say this again: If a society gives up on basic research, it is giving up on its future.”

 

The Fundamental Science Investigator Award
The new Fundamental Science Investigator Award (FSIA) has been created in an effort to help the School of Science reverse the pressures of shrinking graduate programs and reduced federal funding for basic scientific research. Promising, mid-career School of Science faculty will be carefully nominated to receive the FSIA, which will provide fellowships for three graduate students and one postdoctoral associate – the minimum size needed for an experimental effort in science. The FSIA provides a multi-year funding base that allows the faculty member to lead a small research program without relying on outside funding. Ultimately, the award should make him or her much more competitive in pursuing other sources of funding, because successful results accomplished while supported by the FSIA could eventually justify further support from risk-averse federal agencies or foundations.

The cost to sponsor an expendable multi-year Fundamental Science Investigator Award is $1.5 million. The cost to endow one FSIA is $9 million; our goal is to be able to offer at least five of these prestigious awards in the coming years. If you would like more information, please contact Elizabeth Chadis at 617.253.8903 or echadis@mit.edu.