As I write this, MIT is in the process of choosing a new President, who will lead a major fundraising campaign. I hope that one goal of that campaign will be to secure funding for basic science, and you can imagine that, as Dean of the School of Science, I am asked to justify why our alumni and friends should give for that. After all, MIT is trying to solve the major problems facing mankind: finding secure sources of energy, curing disease, safeguarding our environment, and building new businesses that will keep the economy strong. With such challenging practical problems, at an institution that is dominated by engineering like no other major research university in the United States, shouldn’t we concentrate on these practical things and leave basic science to others?
My answer is that we must recommit ourselves to the support of basic research at MIT for three reasons. First, science is beautiful. One often hears about a beautiful proof of a theorem in mathematics. But there is no doubt that in every field of science, there is great beauty in the universal truths that are discovered. In physics, for example, the simplification that occurs with the discovery that electricity and magnetism are part of one force, as we learned in freshman physics (8.02), is amazingly beautiful. Second, these beautiful universal truths of science are often extremely important in our lives. When Bob Horvitz discovered that there are specific genes that determine when a cell dies, he discovered something universal. He discovered these genes in a worm, but these genes determine when a tadpole’s tail disappears, and they are also involved in a number of degenerative diseases. Furthermore, they must malfunction in cancer cells, in order for the cancer to survive. When Claude Shannon developed the mathematics to describe information and its transmission, he built a structure that is universal and beautiful, but it is the basis of much of information technology. Last, MIT does science particularly well. If you examine the list of Nobel Laureates since the 1960’s, you find an amazing number with MIT connections.
This last is partly a consequence of MIT’s exceptional ability to identify talented scientists at an early stage. Over the decades, we have attracted the most talented undergraduate and graduate students, who are interested in science and have strong preparation in math and science. And at the faculty level, we are very good at identifying talented scientists before they are famous. But it is also a consequence of our investing in these young people. At the undergraduate level, the real cost per student per year is about $70,000, whereas the average tuition paid per student is about $20,000; the difference comes from MIT’s endowment. We also heavily subsidize graduate education by about $35,000 per student per year. And the cost of equipment and space renovations to get a new faculty member started is about $2,000,000. So, not surprisingly, this brings us back to the campaign. We will need funds for undergraduate financial aid, to continue admitting the best students, independent of their ability to pay; we will need graduate fellowships to make up for the growing shortfall in government funding; we will need chaired professorships to keep our young star faculty members when other institutions try to steal them, and we will need research funds to start their labs.
In these pages you will find some beautiful science. Much of this issue focuses on the physics of neutrinos. We learned in the late 1990’s that these elusive particles have mass, the biggest surprise in particle physics in the last 40 years. Janet Conrad has been involved in some of the most important neutrino experiments and has organized the articles in this issue. You will also learn about Colin Masson, who is supporting our Lorenz Center, whose goal is to understand the fundamental science of climate. Whatever field of science is of interest to you, MIT probably has faculty members and students at its frontier. Please consider supporting them financially. The very fact that influential people are asking whether it is important for MIT to do research in basic science means that we need your help more than ever.
Dean, MIT School of Science