Tag Archives: nanoscience

IT’S TIME FOR THE 2016 KAVLI PRIZE WEEK (SEPTEMBER 5 – 8)!

 

Notable quotations by FRED KAVLI about scientific research. Obtained from http:www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch6yMD4JGCo, and from http://www/kavliprize.org/about/fred-kavli.
Notable quotations by FRED KAVLI about scientific research. Obtained from
http:www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch6yMD4JGCo, and from http://www/kavliprize.org/about/fred-kavli.

 

The Kavli Prizes are awarded every 2 years to scientists whose research investigations have made seminal advances in science.  These Prizes were established by Fred Kavli (1927-2013), a physicist, inventor, and industrialist.  Kavli Prizes have the same level of high honor as the Nobel Prizes, but are restricted to 3 large areas of science (astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience).  For 2016, 9 pioneering scientists were announced as awardees in June, and next week the Kavli Prizes will be presented at a special ceremony in Oslo, Norway, during the Kavli Prize Week festivities.

Today’s dispatch briefly gives information about the newest Kavli Prize Laureates and their important research achievements.

Kavli Prize Week and the Kavli Foundation! 

The Kavli Prize website presents much information about the Kavli Prizes and Kavli Prize Week, including the selection of awardees, biographies and information about the newest and the previous Laureates, recordings of presentations by the Laureates, and, several other items for viewing by the general public (e.g., Popular Science Lectures).  This website is highly recommended and very worthy for you to explore independently!

The schedule of events for the 2016 Kavli Prize Week and abstracts for the 2016 Laureate Lectures by the new awardees are given in “The Kavli Prize Week 2016 – Program”The Kavli Foundation issues educational videos explaining the 3 areas of modern science involving the Kavli Prizes.

The 2016 Kavli Prize Laureates! 

The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics (see “2016 Prize in Astrophysics”) is shared between Ronald W. P. Drever (California Institute of Technology, United States), Kip S. Thorne (California Institute of Technology, United States), and Rainer Weiss (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States), for their recent direct detection of gravitational waves after many years of controversy about whether these features of cosmology actually existed (see “Brian Greene Explains the Discovery of Gravitational Waves”; also see “Rainer Weiss”).  By persisting in their studies when confronted by failures to detect any gravitational waves, they finally succeeded; their discovery translates theory into practice, and thereby creates a whole new branch of astronomy.

The Kavli Prize in Nanoscience (see “2016 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience: A discussion with Gerd Binnig and Christoph Gerber” ) is shared between Gerd Binnig (IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Switzerland), Christoph Gerber (University of Basel, Switzerland), and Calvin Quate (Stanford University, United States), for their invention and development of the atomic force microscope.  This new tool for research greatly advances imaging of the molecular and atomic structure of nonconducting surfaces, and permits directly measuring surface properties at the level of different atoms.  Research with atomic force microscopy now is widely used for nanoscience investigations of many different materials in all 3 branches of science; this instrument is wonderfully versatile, so unexpected new applications continue to develop (e.g., usage for medical diagnosis of cancer patients).  Atomic force microscopy took decades of dedicated work to be fully developed and explored.  Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention of the scanning tunneling microscope; that innovative new instrument necessarily preceded the invention and development of the atomic force microscope.

The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience (see “2016 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience: A discussion with Eve Marder, Michael Marzenich, and Carla Shatz” ) is shared between Eve Marder (Brandeis University, United States), Michael Marzenich (University of California at San Francisco, United States), and Carla Shatz (Stanford University, United States), for their research showing that the adult brain changes its architecture and functioning from experience and learning (i.e., brain remodeling and neuroplasticity).  This new concept is derived from study of several different model systems, and replaces the traditional view that the adult brain is static and can no longer change.  Their new model of the brain encourages development of new therapeutic approaches to treat adult human brain dysfunctions (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, senility, trauma, etc.).

General discussion! 

All the 2016 Kavli Prize Laureates exemplify the expectation that scientists should be creative individuals who are not afraid to explore new ideas, concepts, and approaches!  Their celebrated work has included both basic and applied research, theoretical and experimental studies, and, development of new research methods and instruments.  Their outstanding discoveries were the result of persistent dedication to research as a source for new knowledge; their use of collaborative investigations is prominent.  The 9 Laureates in 2016 are outstanding researchers, and all serve as good role models for young scientists just beginning their professional  careers.

Concluding remarks! 

The 2016 Kavli Prizes admirably fulfill the intention of the late Fred Kavli to honor excellence in research, to emphasize the importance of basic science, and to promote public education about scientific research.  All people should join in celebrating the new Kavli Prize Laureates!

 

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THE KAVLI PRIZES ARE AWARDED FOR 2014

Notable quotations by FRED KAVLI about scientific research.  Obtained from  http:www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch6yMD4JGCo , and from http://www/kavliprize.org/about/fred-kavli ,

Notable quotations by FRED KAVLI about scientific research.  Obtained from http:www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch6yMD4JGCo , and from http://www/kavliprize.org/about/fred-kavli .

  The Kavli Prizes are bestowed every 2 years for the most outstanding research within 3 of the largest branches of modern science: astrophysicsnanoscience, and neuroscience [1].  These international Prizes are made possible by the late Fred Kavli, who was born in Norway and later moved to the USA, held a degree in physics, and was a very successful industrialist; he generously donated funds to establish this new award program.  Kavli Prizes were first awarded in 2008, and are regarded as having the same very high prestige as the Nobel Prizes in science [2].  Nevertheless, the Kavli Prizes have several distinctive differences from the Nobel Prizes, particularly for their focus on only 3 topical areas in modern science, their open nomination process, and their recent origin in the 21st century. I recently covered the announcement of the 2014 awardees of the Nobel Prizes in science (see “The 2014 Nobel Prizes in Science are Announced” ).  The honorees for the 2014 Kavli Prizes were announced in late May, and their awards were presented in September as part of the extensive Kavli Prize Week festivities in Oslo (Norway).  In this article I will first give a short description about Fred Kavli and the nature of the Kavli Prizes, and then will offer an overview of the 2014 Kavli Prize awardees and their seminal research discoveries.  Each segment is followed by sources for additional information that are available on the internet.    [1]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  Kavli Foundation – Science prizes for the future.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about .   [2]  Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prize facts.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/ .   Fred Kavli and the Kavli Prizes Fred Kavli was an entrepreneur, a vigorous worker and leader in industry, an outspoken advocate for experimental research, a philanthropist, an innovator, and an amazing benefactor of science.  After he sold his very successful business, he established the Kavli Foundation.  This works to “support scientific research aimed at improving the quality of life for people around the world”.  It does this through establishing research institutes at universities in many different countries, endowing professorial chairs at universities, sponsoring science symposia and workshops, engaging the public in science via education, promoting scientists’ communications, and, rewarding excellence in science journalism.  As part of these programs, the Kavli Prizes were established by the Foundation in associatiion with The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.   The Kavli Prizes are intended to honor scientists “for making seminal advances in 3 research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience”.  Fred Kavli elected to emphasize research areas representing the largest subjects (astrophysics studies the entire universe), the smallest subjects (nanoscience studies structure and function at the level of atoms and molecules), and the most complex subjects (neuroscientists can study normal and pathological functioning of the human brain).  Fred Kavli was particularly enthusiastic about supporting basic scientific research because he correctly viewed that as the generator of subsequent developments providing practical benefits for humanity.   He also recognized that experimental science is not always predictable, and that practical consequences often arise only many years after a discovery in basic research.  Clearly, all of the programs sponsored by Fred Kavli are having and will continue to have a very beneficial impact on science in the modern world. The selection of Kavli Prize Laureates is made by international committees of distinguished scientists recommended by several national academies of science.  The awards are announced by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters as part of the opening events at the annual World Science Festival.  During the Kavli Prize Week in Oslo, each Laureate receives a gold medal, a special scroll, and a large financial award, from a member of the royal family of Norway. Very good information about Fred Kavli (1927 – 2013) is given on the internet by the Kavli Prize website at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about/fred-kavli .  A glimpse into Kavli’s life, personality, and hopes for science progress is offered by several good short videos on the internet: (1) “WSF (World Science Festival) Remembers Fred Kavli (1927-2013), Giant of Science Philanthropy” at:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch6yMD4JGCc  (wonderful!), and, (2) “Basic Research’s Generous Benefactor” at:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYkvP_HKZZY  (very highly recommended!).  The organization, purpose, and history of the Kavli Prizes and the Kavli Foundation are available at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about/guidelines ,  and at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about/kavli-foundation 2014 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics The 2014 Kavli Prize iin Astrop hysics was awarded jointly to 3 professors working with theoretical physics: Alan H. Guth, Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA), Andrei D. Linde, Ph.D. (Stanford University, USA), and Alexei A. Starobinsky, Ph.D. (Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, Russian Academy of Science, Russia).  These  awards are made for their independent development of the modern theory of ‘cosmic inflation’, which proposes that the there was a very brief yet gigantic expansion of our universe shortly after its initial formation; this dramatic new theory now has been supported by some data from space probes and caused large changes in current theoretical concepts for the evolution of the cosmos.    Further information about the 2014 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and these Laureates is available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/prizes-and-laureates/prizes/2014-kavli-prize-laureates-astrophysics . 2014 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience The 2014 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience was awarded to 3 university professors:  Thomas W. Ebbeson, Ph.D. (University of Strasbourg, France), Stefan W. Hell, Ph.D. (Max-Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry}, and John B. Pendry, Ph.D. (Imperial College London, U.K.).  Each independently researched different aspects of basic and applied optics needed to advance the resolution level of light microscopy much beyond what had been believed to be possible; their research findings led to the development of nano-optics and the transformation of light microscopy into nanoscopy.  The new ability of light microscopy to now see objects at the nanoscale dimension greatly expands and improves its utility for nanoscience research (i.e., nanobiology, nanochemistry, nanomedicine, and nanophysics).  It is interesting to note that Prof Hell also will receive a 2014 Nobel Prize in recognition of his outstanding research.   Further information about the 2014 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience and these Laureates is available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/prizes-and-laureates/prizes/2014-kavli-prize-laureates-nanoscience 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience The 2014 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience was awarded jointly to 3 professors:  Brenda Milner, Ph.D. (Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Canada), John O’Keefe, Ph.D. (University College London, U.K.), and Marcus E. Raichle, Ph.D. (Washington University School of Medicine).  Their different research investigations revealed a cellular and networking basis for memory and cognition in the brain; their experimental findings resulted from the development and use of new technologies for brain research, and led to establishment of the modern field of ‘cognitive neuroscience’.  The resulting new knowledge about memory and cognition advances understanding of human diseases causing memory loss and dementia (e.g., Alzheimer ’s disease).  It is of special interest to note that Prof. O’Keefe also will receive a 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in recognitionof his very significant brain research.  Further information about the 2014 Kavli Prize in Neiuroscience and these Laureates is available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/prizes-and-laureates/prizes/2014-kavli-prize-laureates-neuroscience .  A discussion with all 3 of these 2014 Laureates, which will be readily understood and especially interesting for both non-scientists and professional scientists, is available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/events-and-features/2014-kavli-prize-neuroscience-discussion-lauereates .   Concluding Remarks It is indeed very striking that several honorees for the different 2014 Kavli Prizes also have been selected for the 2014 Nobel Prizes (see: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/year/index.html?year=2014&images=yes ).  That convergence of judgment emphasizes that the choices of which scientists have made sufficiently important advances in research are made with consistency by the different selection committees for these 2 supreme science awards.  Since Fred Kavli elected to emphasize work in several of the hottest research areas in modern science, this convergence of awards can be expected to continue in the future.  There can be no doubt that all awardees selected for the 2014 awards of Kavli Prizes are very outstanding investigators who have made remarkable progress in scientific research.  Everyone in the world should appreciate and celebrate the hard work and research success of the 2014 Kavli Laureates. 

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SCIENTISTS TELL US ABOUT THEIR LIFE AND WORK, PART 8

 

Quotations by Prof. Nadrian (Ned) C. Seeman (from pages 20 and 23 of his Living History essay in ACA RefleXions, American Crystallographic Association, Summer 2014, Number 2, pages 19-23)
Quotations by Prof. Nadrian (Ned) C. Seeman (from pages 20 and 23 of his Living History essay in ACA RefleXions, American Crystallographic Association, Summer 2014, Number 2, pages 19-23)

 

In this series, I am recommending to you a few life stories about real scientists.  I prefer to let these scientists tell their own stories where possible.  Autobiographical accounts are interesting and entertaining for both non-scientists and other scientists.  My selections here mostly involve scientists I either know personally or at least know about.  If further materials like this are needed, they can be obtained readily on the internet or with input from librarians at public or university libraries, science teachers, and other scientists.

In the preceding segment of this series, the story of a very celebrated basic research scientist working on Protein Dynamics in Cell Biology was recommended (see “Scientists Tell Us About Their Life and Work, Part 7”).  Part 8 presents the life story of a research scientist who dreamed up and established an amazingly novel new branch of chemical engineering based upon the well-known double-helix of DNA.

Part 8 Recommendations:  NEW NANOSTRUCTURES BASED ON DNA

Prof. Nadrian (Ned) C. Seeman (1945 – present) originated several new fields of science and engineering: DNA Nanotechnology, DNA-Based Crystallography, and DNA-Based Computation.  His very creative investigations and innovative new concepts for “Structural DNA Technology” often were developed for practical applications (e.g., better production of highly ordered macromolecular crystals, nanocomputation, nano-electronics, nanomedicine, and nanorobotics); thus, he is both a basic and an applied researcher.  All of his dramatic innovations and unusual research topics are based on the structure and properties of DNA.  Numerous other research labs around the world now also are working with DNA-based nanostructures.

DNA is known to most as the double-stranded genetic material making up chromosomes.  The binding between each of the 2 associated strands takes place by specific pairing between their individual nucleotide bases; this binding is very specific and fairly strong.  In the laboratory, segments of synthetic single-stranded DNA can be  hybridized (reassociated) to form new double-stranded DNA; branch points and unpaired base sequences at the termini can be produced as desired, and are key points of technology for using DNA to produce new nanostructures.  Seeman developed and used these characteristic features from the early 1980’s to form self-assembled DNA polygons, and, 2-D and 3-D lattices; subsequently, he went on to invent nanomechanical devices (e.g., synthetic computers, robots, translators, and walkers), and other nanostructures (e.g., superstructures of DNA associated with other species, and nano-assembly lines).  In 2004-5, he was the founding president of a new professional science association, the International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation and Engineering (see:  http://isnsce.org/ ).

Seeman’s unconventional research involves unique combinations of biochemistry, biophysics, chemical engineering, computer science, crystallography, nanoscience and nanotechnology, structural biology, and, thermodynamics.  His creative ideas and amazing lab studies for making new nanostructures involve both theory and practice, and are also being used to advance scientific knowledge and understanding about the biophysics of intermediates in the recombination of chromosomal DNA during its replication.

Prof. Seeman chairs the Department of Chemistry at New York University.  He has received many honors for his pioneering research, including the Sidhu Award from the Pittsburg Diffraction Society (1974), a Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health (1982), the Science and Technology Award from Popular Science Magazine (1993), the Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology (1995), and the Nichols Medal from the NY Section of the American Chemical Society (2008).  He is an elected member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (U.K.), and holds an Einstein Professorship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  In 2010, Prof Seeman and Prof. Donald Eigler (IBM Almaden Research Center, San Jose, California) were jointly honored as awardees of the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience [1]; also see the photo of these 2 awardees receiving their Kavli Prize from H. M. King Harald of Norway [2].  Seeman is without question an embodiment of what Dr.M wrote about in an earlier essay on the significance of curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, and individualism in science (see:  http://dr-monsrs.net/2014/02/25/curiosity-creativity-inventiveness-and-individualism-in-science/ ).

[1]  Kavli Foundation, 2010.  2010 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavlifoundation.org/2010-nanoscience-citation .

[2]   Kavli Foundation, 2010.  The Kavli Prize in Nanoscience (2010).  Available on the internet at:  http://registration.kavliprize.org/seksjon/vis.html?tid=27454 .

Lots of interesting information about Prof. Seeman is displayed on his laboratory home page (see: http://seemanlab4.chem.nyu.edu/ ).  My recommendations (below) start with Seeman’s own explanation of his research in DNA Nanotechnology, as written for non-scientists (1A).  For working scientists, his review article provides a stimulating overview (1B).  The second recommendation (2) is an official summary of why Seeman and Eigler were selected for the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience in 2010.  The third item is Prof. Seeman’s personal description about his own career in science (3), and is filled with stories and anecdotes about both his difficulties and his triumphs; all readers will find this to be a very fascinating account.  Dr.M considers that essay to be extraordinary, since it is probably the most unusually forthright and outspoken piece ever authored by a modern scientist.

(1A)  Seeman, N. C., 2004.  Nanotechnology and the double helix (preview).  Scientific American  290:64-75.  Available on the internet at:
 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nanotechnology-and-the-double-helix .

(1B)  Seeman, N. C., 2010.  Nanomaterials based on DNA.  Annual Review of Biochemistry  79:65-87.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-biochem-060308-102244 .

(2)  Kavli Foundation, 2010.  2010 Nanoscience Prize explanatory notes.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavlifoundation.org/2010-nanoscience-prize-explanatory-notes .

(3)  Seeman, N. C., 2014.  The crystallographic roots of DNA nanotechnology.  ACA RefleXions, American Crystallographic Association, Number 2, Summer 2014, pages 19-23.  Available on the internet at: http://www.amercrystalassn.org/documents/2014%20newsletters/Summer%202014%20WEB.pdf .

 

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SCIENTISTS TELL US ABOUT THEIR LIFE AND WORK, PART 1

 

Prof. Sumio Iijima giving an invited talk to "Nanotechnology in Northern Europe Congress and Exhibition" in 2006 at Helsinki, Finland (http://swww.nanotech.net/ntne2006.htm )
Prof. Sumio Iijima speaking to “Nanotechnology in Northern Europe Congress and Exhibition” in 2006 at Helsinki, Finland (http://www.nanotech.net/ntne2006/news.htm )

 

Some scientists are traditional sedate scholars, while certain others fulfill the Hollywood image of being quite mad.  Most research scientists are somewhere in between these extremes, but often have lives filled with new experiments, several surprises, and much perspiration, as well as with some acclaim by other researchers, personal satisfaction, and at least a little bit of fun (see my article in the Basic Introductions category on “What is the Fun of Being a Scientist?”).  Winners of the biggest science prizes often show major strengths at being imaginative, argumentative, and humorous during many years of work in their research laboratories.

Ordinary people typically know nothing at all about the life of any individual scientist.  Children in school unfortunately study only dead scientists and almost never get to see and learn about living professional researchers as fellow people.  Teenagers like to read about strong personalities in fantastic predicaments, but very few teens realize that some living scientists have exactly those adventures.  Most modern adults worship sports stars and TV celebrities, and so are not able to perceive that after many years of effort, a hard-working research scientist who is one of their neighbors finally succeeds in establishing a new theory by the sheer strength of will and character.

Introduction

In this series, I am recommending to you a few life stories about real scientists.  I prefer to let the scientists tell their own stories.  Their autobiographical accounts are interesting and entertaining for both non-scientists and other scientists.  My selections here mostly involve scientists I either know personally or at least know about.  If further materials like this are needed, they can be obtained readily on the internet or with input from librarians at public or university libraries, science teachers, and other scientists.

Most of these materials reveal the human aspects and personalities of individual scientists, and are not primarily intended to explain or instruct about science.  By getting to know more about the life of a few real scientists, I hope that readers/viewers/listeners will conclude that all these special individuals are also their fellow human beings.

Part 1 Recommendations: NANOSCIENCE & NANOTECHNOLOGY

Prof. Sumio Iijima (1939 – present) is known globally for his co-founding of the new discipline, nanoscience, through his 1991 discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Today, many hundreds of other research scientists and engineers around the world are working to further develop carbon nanomaterials for dramatic new devices and innovative uses in energy storage, clinical medicine, and industrial processes.  This leading Japanese scientist was honored in 2008 as one of the inaugural Kavli Prize awardees in Nanoscience.

Prof. Iijima is somewhat unusual because he is working on research both in academia (Meijo University, at Nagoya) and in industry (NEC Corporation).  I recommend everyone’s attention first to viewing a wonderful video of his masterful public presentation given at a Friday Evening Discourse (London) in 2007.  Secondly, read the delightful autobiographical account describing his childhood and research career; this also presents his personal advice to youths beginning their career in science.  A third article gives his own story about discovering carbon nanotubes.  Much further information about his life and work are available on Prof. Iijima’s own website  (http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/mainE.html ); a gallery of photographs also is available (http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Gallery/galleryE.html ).

Iijima, S. & The Vega Science Trust, 1997.  Nanotubes: The materials of the 21st century.  Available on the internet at:   http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/71 .

Iijima, S., 2014.  About myself.  NEC, Carbon nanotubes.  Available on the internet at:
http://www.nec.com/en/global/rd/innovative/cnt/myself.html .

Iijima, S., 2014.  The discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Available on the internet at:
http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Iijima/sumioE.html .

 

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IS MODERN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH WORTH ITS VERY LARGE COST?

 Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Are We Spending Too Much Money for Scientific Research?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

            Recently, I explained why scientific research costs so very much (see article in the Money&Grants category on “Why is Science so Very Expensive?”)  With that understanding we now can wonder whether spending this very large total amount of money to support research studies is worthwhile (i.e., do the results justify the costs)?  This is a very natural question for all taxpayers who are forced to support research studies; but, this question is not so easy to answer because there are no objective measures upon which to base the evaluations.  The public views scientific research almost totally only on the basis of practical considerations (e.g., will this study cure a disease, will that research produce a much cheaper product, will these investigations help agricultural productivity, etc.).  To be fair both to taxpayers and the scientists conducting grant-supported research, we will first look at how to evaluate individual research projects, and then step back to consider the value received from all the total research activity. 

Are Individual Research Projects Worth their Costs? 

            Basic research seeks new knowledge for its own sake.  Most people judge the importance of basic research studies as being a total waste of money (e.g., “What difference does it make to me or to society if we know more facts about the nest-building behavior of another tropical fruit-eating bird?”).  This type of judgment by non-scientists is based on ignorance; moreover, they do not recognize that many esoteric findings from basic research much later turn out to have a very wide importance and significant practical uses.These thoughts lead me to believe that it is best to look at the critical opinions of experts rather than to use our everyday opinions based on emotions and ignorance.   Only experts have the full background and technical experience needed to form valid judgments about the worthiness of research projects in basic science.  My conclusion here is that the costs and benefits of basic science research can only be validly evaluated by experts. 

            For applied research, experimental and engineering studies are used to design a new offering or improve an existing commercial product.  Applied research and development efforts all are funded by a commercial business only up to the point that the total expenses must be less than the expected profits coming from future sales of the new or improved product.  Judgments by non-scientists about the worthiness of applied research are based only on personal preferences, and therefore commonly differ from one person to another. Again, opinions from experts are better.

How are Official Judgments Made about Worthiness in Proposed Research Studies? 

            Given that it is difficult for non-scientists to objectively evaluate the worthiness of most basic research studies in modern science, we must look briefly at how the official decisions about funding are made by granting agencies.  They are supposed to carefully consider whether the money requested is appropriate to accomplish the stated aims in each project, and how the results will have value for science and society. Both quality and quantity are evaluated for the different aspects of all reviews (e.g., design of experiments, significance of answering the research questions, amount of time and money required, availability of needed laboratory facilities, training of the principal investigator, etc.).  With applications for renewal of research support, reviewers then must look both forward (i.e., what will be done?) and backward (i.e., what has been accomplished during the previous period of support?).  The expert reviewers also make both official and unofficial examinations about whether the selected research subject needs further study, and if significance of the expected results will justify the budget being requested.   

            The evaluation mechanism used by granting agencies avoids the ignorance problem by using experts to make these evaluations.  Critical judgments of grant applications by expert reviewers (i.e., other scientists) constitute peer review.  Expert reviewers often have approved research studies that non-scientists in the public regard as being a waste of money; as explained earlier, this lack of agreement largely is due to the very large difference in knowledge and technical experience.  The validity of decisions by the official referees is enlarged by the fact that research grant applications are evaluated and judged by several experts, thereby usually avoiding any one opinion from becoming a mistake.  Projects judged to have little conceivable significance for science, poor design, inadequate controls, mundane ideas, technical problems, etc., all usually are eliminated from funding by reviewers for the research grant agencies.  The official evaluation of research grant proposals is a filtering mechanism, and this includes evaluation of the costs and benefits. 

            In principle, all the expert evaluations of applications by scientists for research grants should lead to funding of only those research projects having importance for science and society.  Although this usually does happen, due to the very large number of research grant applications and the even larger number of reviewers, some small number of mistakes is made both for what is funded and what is not funded. 

The Cost/Benefits Question for the Total Scientific Research

            How can we best make a valid judgment about whether spending very large amounts of money on all scientific research is worthwhile?  Looking at the evaluations for many thousands of individual research projects and then averaging does not give a very satisfying answer.  Accordingly, we must ask here whether a different approach needs to be taken to obtain a more meaningful conclusion?  By looking at the totality of all funded research projects, then there is a much more solid basis upon which to make an evaluation of costs versus benefits.  I will explain this below, using the well-known examples of transistors and carbon nanotubes. 

            The invention and development of the transistor was initially only a physical curiosity (see the fascinating personal recollections by one of the leading research participants [1]).  Its discovery exemplifies basic research in action, because its ultimate usefulness was not foreseen.  Non-scientists all would have concluded that spending money for its discovery was pointless.  After much further research and many engineering developments, electronics and computers using transistors now are found everywhere in the modern world.  Once its practical importance was documented, the initial negative judgments rapidly changed to become strongly positive. 

            Carbon nanotubes were observed by Iijima in 1990-1991 while conducting basic research studies on a different type of carbon specimen with his electron microscope [2,3].  This unexpected observation of carbon nanotubes was a chance event, and is a wonderful example of serendipity in basic research.  Iijima was not trying to study carbon nanotubes, because nobody was aware that they existed!  Today, after further research investigations both in academia and industry, carbon nanotubes are found in several different important commercial products, and hundreds of scientists and engineers now are working on new uses for these very small materials within innovative products designed for medicine, energy storage, and high technology. 

            Early judgments about the worthiness of studying transistors and carbon nanotubes were negative and wrong.  The money produced from all the present widespread usage of transistors is absolutely gigantic, and probably is, or soon will be, matched by the value of new products and many developing uses for carbon nanotubes.  Thereby, the cost/benefits ratio for both are small, and all the money spent for their research studies must be judged to be very, very worthwhile.  Moreover, the dollars coming from these 2 research discoveries alone have more than paid for all the numerous other scientific investigations that have had a much less notable outcome.  Therefore, I believe that public funding of all worthy research studies is very worthwhile.  My positive conclusion about the huge pile of money spent on research is that this is good, because by enabling all the very numerous ordinary research investigations that result in less spectacular or even mundane results, the chances that some really great unanticipated breakthroughs will be produced are notably increased. 

            Money most certainly is not the only measure for significance of scientific research!  Investigations producing a breakthrough in research or a dramatic change in knowledge can have enormous importance for the progress of science.  One good example of this is the recent arrival of the new concept of nanoscience; this new branch of physical science deals with materials just slightly bigger than individual atoms and molecules.  Nanoscience now has extended into specialized areas of research, such as nanochemistry, nano-engineering, nanomedicine, nanotechnology, and, others [e.g., 4].  Nanoscience really represents a new way of thinking for scientists in these areas.  

Concluding Statements

            History is the ultimate judge for the worthiness of funding research studies!  From the considerations described above, I draw 3 conclusions.
1.  Basic research findings can take many years to develop into spectacular commercial products that are widely utilized.  The ultimate success and worthiness of specific grant-supported basic research is almost impossible to predict.
2.  For research projects in basic science, worthiness must be judged one at a time, and independently from practical usage.  Significance of results from this or that research project only can be judged validly by other expert scientists.
3.  The value of spending so much money to support scientific research is best measured by considering the totality of research results acquired by all funded studies.  When viewed in this light, the funding of numerous projects that turn out to be only ordinary is seen to be good because this increases the chances that some unanticipated spectacular findings are acquired and thereby greatly benefit both science and society. 


[1]  Mullis, K.B., 2012.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:
http://karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf .  

[2]  Iijima, S., & The Vega Science Trust, 1997.  Nanotubes: The materials of the 21st century.  Available on the internet at:  http://vega.org.uk/video/programme/71 .

[3]  Iijima, S., 2011.  The discovery of carbon nanotubes.  Available on the internet at:  http://nanocarb.meijo-u.ac.jp/jst/english/Iijima/sumioE.html .

[4]  XII International Conference on Nanostructured Materials, Moscow, Russia, 2014.  NANO 2014.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nano2014.org/ . 

 

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