What single factor mattered most in MIT’s transformation from an excellent science-grounded technical training school into a leading university with global impact? I believe it was the insistence of MIT’s ninth president, Karl Taylor Compton (1930-1948), that the Institute dramatically expand its fundamental scientific research. Thanks to his vision, at MIT, science and engineering are equal partners in progress.
Today, basic research serves as our foundation and inspiration. The drive for discovery is inherently valuable, of course; there may be no higher expression of human achievement than the passion for understanding how the world works. This issue of SPECTRVM presents an extraordinary range of research explorations, from the cosmos to the climate, from energy to oceans, from the frontiers of new materials to subjects as ancient as war. (One exciting development since Compton’s time has been the growth at MIT of fundamental research outside the sciences.)
On this campus, there is no currency more precious than a striking set of research results. But we also value research as a process, as an essential aspect of how we teach our students. In President Compton’s day, MIT had a few hundred graduate students. Today, our 6,700 graduate students and hundreds of post-doctoral researchers constitute a major force in our pursuit of knowledge and solutions. And, through our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), more than 85% of MIT undergraduates participate in frontline faculty research before they graduate. When students tackle the practical challenges of exploration, experimentation, and discovery, they engage in a powerful form of “learning by doing”— and they experience a distinctive part of what it means to be educated at MIT.
At an institution so focused on inventing the future, we also know that fundamental research is the deep source of the most important and lasting new ideas. This issue of SPECTRVM highlights the work of several scientists whose groundbreaking research contained the seeds of profound innovations, from GPS to drugs for fighting cancer. By turning scientific breakthroughs into job-rich companies, our graduates also serve the world. At MIT, we advance human knowledge through basic research every day. But in an era of shrinking federal funding, the future of fundamental research is far from guaranteed. Investing in basic research is investing in our future. It is up to us who understand its value to make the case for its lasting importance to society as a whole.
L. Rafael Reif