Examples of Science in the National Interest from Recent OSTP Report

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Publication date: 
22 August 1994

Interspersed throughout the 31-page report recently released by the
Office of Science and Technology Policy are examples of science in
the national interest, which is also the title of the document.
Early on in the report, the authors state, "Vibrant scientific
disciplines are best guaranteed by the initiatives of talented
investigators and in turn provide the strongest and most enduring
foundation for science in the national interest.  That quantum
theory would lead to today's electronics, or investigations of DNA
structure to genetic engineering, could not be anticipated.
Countless examples could be provided; the few which accompany this
statement are tangible evidence of inspiration, promise, and
improved quality of life for our citizens.  We can be confident
that our children and grandchildren will look back at today's
fundamental science and its ultimate benefit with the same surprise
and appreciation that we experience today."

Some of the physics-related examples are as follows:

"...the GPS system depends on computer chips, miniaturized radio
receivers, and- especially- ultra-precise atomic clocks....  Atomic
clocks were not, of course, invented with such an application in
mind.  In fact, they arose from efforts to answer fundamental
questions about the nature of the universe.  Testing the basic laws
of physics, such as Einstein's theory of general relativity, turned
out to require much more accurate clocks than were available 30
years ago.  So university physicists set out to develop them, and
succeeded both in verifying Einstein's predictions and in making
major advances in the technology of time-keeping.  Outside of
physics, no great need for ultra-precise clocks was foreseen; but,
as so often happens, the advance opened up unpredictable

"...  Then an improbable-seeming third form of carbon was
discovered: a hollow cluster of 60 carbon atoms shaped like a
soccer ball.  Buckminsterfullerene or `buckyballs'...is the
roundest, most symmetrical large molecule known....  Speculation
and some hard work on potential applications began almost
immediately after the discovery of buckyballs.  Possible
applications of interest to industry include optical devices;
chemical sensors and chemical separation devices; production of
diamonds and carbides as cutting tools or hardening agents;
batteries and other electrochemical applications, including
hydrogen storage media; drug delivery systems and other medical
applications; polymers, such as new plastics; and catalysts....
Yet it is important to note that the discovery of this curious
molecule and its cousins was serendipitous, made in the course of
fundamental experiments aimed at understanding how long-chain
molecules are formed in outer space."

"The true origins of the information superhighway, in fact, include
fundamental research on the physics of surfaces in the late 1940s
that led to transistors, obscure university work on microwave
oscillators in the early 1950s that led to lasers, and a
speculative suggestion in an academic journal in the mid-1960s that
led to optical fibers.  Such research, if proposed today, would be
hard to distinguish from hundreds of similar basic research
proposals.  Yet it produced the seeds of a revolutionary technology
that is likely to transform homes and workplaces alike."

"Over the ages, physicians have sought a means of seeing inside the
human body without cutting it open.  Fundamental discoveries in
physics have given us first x-rays and then the more modern
diagnostic methods of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and
positron-electron tomography (PET), contributing to remarkable
advances in medical research....  The development of MRI is
illustrative of the often complex path to major new technologies.
It began as basic research in nuclear physics-- in particular, the
curious fact that the nuclei of most atoms behave as though they
have a tiny magnet attached to them....  Yet MRI also depends on a
number of technologies that evolved separately but in parallel with
the basic science, and it was the combination of these with the
fundamental physics that made MRI possible."

"The computing revolution is dramatically transforming virtually
every aspect of our society-- our work, our play, even our national
security.  This revolution started with the discovery of the
transistor, the result of fundamental research in solid state
physics and the earlier development of quantum theory.  The next
stage, development of complex microchips incorporating many
transistors, drew from fundamental work in physics, chemistry, and
materials science....  These advances in computing technology draw
heavily on fundamental science.  But science and technology are
closely intertwined: the technology is also driving forward the
frontiers of science- ushering in new fields of research and
extending the limits of inquiry in virtually all fields- which will
in turn enable new technology."

See FYI #127 for information on obtaining a copy of the full report