The Brilliance of Basic Research
“I wasn’t dreaming of developing the GPS,” says Professor Emeritus Dan Kleppner, who in 1960 helped invent the hydrogen maser, an atomic clock that’s now at the heart of satellite-based global positioning systems.
“With basic research, you don’t begin to recognize the applications until the discoveries are in hand,” he says. “In my view, basic science is the best thing that mankind pursues––not so much because it leads to new applications but because it leads to new understanding. For me, there’s no greater pleasure than the joy of discovery.”
This excitement abounds at MIT. Basic research has led to discovery of the first human cancer gene; the first experimental confirmation of the existence of the quark; the first chemical synthesis of penicillin; and the discovery of Prochlorococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic species on Earth.
An astonishing range of basic research is now underway. In nearly every field, MIT has experts at the frontier. Consider Nobel Laureate Bob Horvitz, who discovered that there are specific genes that determine cell death. Today this discovery is revealing new therapies to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Or consider Janet Conrad, whose investigations of the physics of neutrinos are changing the way we understand matter. In the late 1990s, we learned that these elusive particles have mass, the most shocking surprise in particle physics in the past 40 years.
Each year, 3,500 research scientists and visiting faculty work on projects with faculty and students; thousands of graduate students conduct research to become leaders in their fields; and nine out of 10 undergraduate students participate in UROP, MIT’s flagship Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which matches students with faculty in research partnerships. Like faculty, students publish in scholarly journals, present at professional conferences, make policy recommendations, and release their discoveries into the world.
Basic research is the bedrock of MIT—and the foundation for tomorrow.
Why Basic Research?
Why pursue basic research simply for the sake of curiosity, discovery, knowledge, when applied research specifically tackles the world’s biggest problems––poverty, energy, disease, or building new businesses to boost the economy? Faculty say it’s because basic research is the process of creation, and without it, applications vanish.
“People think of basic and applied research as separate, but it’s an extremely important mix,” says Ram Sasisekharan, professor of biological engineering whose research on complex sugars has led to a cascade of potential medical applications that could significantly improve outcomes for patients with cancer and infectious diseases. “Often basic science fuels the applications in a much more profound way,” he says. “To have a higher probability of success in the applied arena, it’s extremely important to be well-grounded in the basic mechanism of the targets we’re after.”
Richard Schrock, the Frederick G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry who won the Nobel Prize in 2005, says: “I got here by doing basic research.” By following his curiosity, he says, he developed the catalysts for the chemical reaction now used every day for the green production of pharmaceuticals, fuels, and other synthetic chemicals.
“The value of basic research is you discover something you didn’t expect — that nobody expected. And it’s where almost everything we now expect came from,” he says. My work had applications. I just didn’t know it at the time.”
Basic research can be breathtaking but often takes a breathtaking amount of time.
Recently, Professor Alan Guth celebrated one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of physics with the first direct evidence confirming his theory of what happened in the fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
His groundbreaking theory of cosmic inflation states that within that first sliver of time, the universe expanded exponentially by a factor of 1025. A golf ball expanding that much would end up 500 times as big as the Milky Way galaxy. Looking back 14 billion years to that first instant of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of radio astronomers recently detected ripples in the fabric of space-time—gravitational waves— the mark of a universe pulling apart in the first fraction of a second after its birth.
Guth’s revolutionary work—first done in 1979—offers spectacular insights into some of humankind’s most basic questions, like, how did the universe begin? And why do we exist?
“Basic science is powerful but takes time to develop,” says Dina Katabi, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and winner of a MacArthur “genius” award. “And unless you invest early on, you cannot reap the benefit later.
“Sometimes you need to invest at the time when it’s not clear that this development will lead to anything, say, in terms of a product. But later, even 60 years later, it becomes pretty clear that this work has become an amazing innovation.”
Ideas in the Marketplace
Ram Sasisekharan, who holds 85 patents and launched three biotech companies in Kendall Square in Cambridge, says that basic science can lead to applications, companies, jobs, a stronger economy, and global competitiveness.
What sets MIT apart from other universities, he says, is that MIT’s culture emerged from its history as an engineering school with deep ties to industry, making it easier for the discoveries of science to enter the marketplace than at other science institutions. In part, he says, MIT’s success is because of MIT’s Technology and Licensing Office, which makes patenting and licensing easier, and also because MIT values and supports collaboration, often across engineering and science.
At other universities, it may be tough, say, for a biologist to launch a company, but at MIT, biologists have helped transform Kendall Square into a biotech capital of the world. Kendall Square (the neighborhood surrounding MIT’s campus) now hosts 150 high-tech companies, including some of the most celebrated technology, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies on the planet.
“MIT is a powerhouse. Its success is combining basic research with launching companies to bring those innovations to market,” says Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who has filed for more than 50 patents, and who studies hydrophobic (water-shedding) surfaces, like those found in nature. His work could solve big problems in energy, water, agriculture, or transportation, but, he says, typical of basic research, his efforts recently led in a surprising direction when he launched LiquiGlide, a company to market his nonstick, nontoxic, super-slippery coating for packaging, which aids in completely dispensing from a container various viscous liquids like ketchup, toothpaste, or jelly. The product—supported by a viral video that showed ketchup flowing easily from the bottle—was named by TIME magazine among the best inventions of 2012.
“We came up with a great technology, but the whole MIT ecosystem is responsible for our success. Everybody rallied—people at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, the Venture Mentoring Service, the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. They posted our videos of ketchup sliding out of the bottle and overnight it became national news,” says Varanasi, adding that MIT’s entrepreneurial culture makes commercialization easy and the Institute unique.
Less Funding Slows Discovery
Basic research takes not only time but also money. Just ask Penny Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies, who revolutionized our understanding of life in the world’s oceans in 1988 when she and colleagues identified Prochlorococcus, a form of ocean plankton that is the tiniest and most abundant photosynthetic organism in the ocean, and which plays a role in regulating climate.
Not only is it also the most abundant single species on Earth, it was completely unknown before her discovery—and Chisholm credits federal funding for the breakthrough. “For 25 years, most of my research was funded by the federal government,” she says.
In fact, MIT played a key role in the 20th century in advancing federal investment in basic research. By the start of World War II, MIT ranked among the U.S.’s top science universities.
At the end of World War II, Vannevar Bush, MIT professor, engineering dean, and science advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wrote Science: The Endless Frontier, a report that became the foundation for post-WWII science policy and led to the 1950 creation of the National Science Foundation to support civilian scientific research.
After the war, the U.S. government funding for science, spurred by an interest in national defense, led to exponential growth in the percent of the federal budget spent on research, support that peaked during the Apollo program in the 1960s. After the Cold War, as defense-research spending declined, federal spending on the life sciences grew. MIT faculty began reorienting their research to address new opportunities provided by the revolution in molecular biology.
For more than 60 years, MIT and other American research universities have led the world in discovery and innovation—with benefits to the entire country—due to federal funding. This vital support, however, is now on the decline. In 1960, for example, 55 percent of MIT’s campus revenue came from federal research dollars. By 2013, it fell to 22 percent. Chisholm says the decline is disrupting the research process.
“Researchers are focusing on projects with a high probability of results, because these projects have a better chance of getting funded. What’s happening is faculty are doing safe things because they know they’ll work. They take fewer risks, but then the probability of discovering something really new and exciting goes down,” she says.
Sasisekharan, now based at the David. H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, whose work on complex sugars had a powerful impact on the multibillion-dollar industry behind Heparin, a sugar-based blood thinner, adds: “NIH funding is vital. If I had not had that, it would have been a lot more difficult to do things. Clearly, it is getting harder because we are getting far more risk-averse, and hence, funding basic science definitely has gotten a lot harder than it used to be.”
Chisholm adds that it’s now great that foundations and private donors are funding high-risk basic research in fields with limited funding. “That’s changed my research life,” she says. “And it’s changing the landscape of science.”
Erosion of federal support has consequences, faculty say. Graduate programs shrink; we lose young faculty to institutions with more money; it becomes tougher to inspire the next generation to pursue basic research; and as the U.S. gives up its lead in various fields, eventually it loses its competitiveness.
“There’s been a decline in the size of the graduate programs in the last few years,” says Richard Schrock. “The number of graduate students now in chemistry is about half of what it has been historically.”
Chisholm adds: “As funding shrinks, there’s less support for postdocs, less fellowship support. And,” she says, “we risk losing mid-career star faculty to universities in countries that are investing more in basic research. The U.S. is at risk of losing its position as a world leader in science and engineering–both in terms of research and education.”
“Any time is the time to invest in basic research,” says Dina Katabi, who works at the brink of computer science, electrical engineering, and physics to improve the speed, reliability, and security of data exchange. “If we don’t, after 10 or 20 years we’ll be facing other countries whose foundational science platform will be much stronger than ours. We have always been the leader in science, but very quickly, we may find ourselves behind.”
“A commitment to basic science and the convergence of disciplines will propel us to stay ahead and stay competitive globally,” Sasisekharan says. “Anything that derails us will have a price. And,” he says, “less federal funding makes it difficult to inspire a younger generation to be excited about basic science.”
Faith in the Future
Kwanghun Chung is a young assistant professor of chemical engineering who joined MIT last fall and is a researcher at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES). He’s collaborating with engineers, neuroscientists, biologists, and doctors on brain disorders and is developing new techniques. Recently, he developed Clarity, a new technology to understand large-scale complex biological systems like the brain. “Our technique is in its very early developmental stages, but it has a great potential to transform the way we do biological research and diagnosis,” he says.
Many faculty members are excited about Chung’s work and where it will lead in 10, 25, or 50 years.
“Everybody knows funding is getting more difficult,” Chung says. “The pot is small, and competition is really fierce. It’s too early to be discouraged. I don’t want to think about it. I just love doing research, so that makes me feel optimistic.”
Dan Kleppner says his 50-year career has led him to focus only on the positive. “One quality of science I really appreciate is its inherent optimism. In spite of all the problems the world faces, I am fundamentally an optimist.”
Schrock believes that basic research is the future. And that MIT’s scientific leadership in the world depends on it. He swings open a cabinet door in his office, closes his hand around a gold medal, and hands a visitor his Nobel Prize.
“I have so much faith in the future,” he says. “I wish I could come back 50 years after I die and look around. Think of what we’ll know. I mean, we’ll no longer have to worry about breast cancer, or cervical cancer, or heart troubles. And wouldn’t it be great if we could just drive a car with power from the sun?
“Won’t it be great to harness that energy to power trains, and cars, and airplanes? I mean, think about it,” he says. “It will be fantastic.”