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Frontiers
Nobel Laureates Used NSF Funds for Winning Research

February 1997

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 parameters.

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."

 


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