Bill Brinkman on Support for Basic Research

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Publication date: 
8 December 2011
Number: 
144

William  Brinkman, director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and former  president of the American Physical Society, recently published a column in  Inside Science Minds, an ongoing series of guest columns and personal  perspectives from those in the science community presented by Inside Science, a news service for the general public supported by the  American Institute of Physics.  In his  column,  Brinkman writes of constrained federal budgets, and concludes:

“So,  as we go forward in these fiscally challenging times, it is essential for  scientists, while advocating for their own fields, to come together to support  science broadly. Doing so will keep America on pace in our increasingly  competitive world. It will sustain our strength and prosperity, and maintain  our place in discovering... innovating... leading.”

The  full text of his November 28 column follows:

“In  Era of Constrained Budgets, Basic Research Remains Critical for Nation's  Prosperity”

By  William F. Brinkman, Inside Science Minds Guest Columnist Inside  Science Minds

Inside  Science presents Inside Science Minds, an ongoing series of guest columnists  & personal perspectives on science presented by scientists, engineers,  mathematicians, and others in the science community.

“(ISM)  -- Even in a period of constrained budgets, science in the United States needs  consistent support from the federal government to keep the nation competitive  in a world that is rapidly advancing. 

“I  have seen the vital role played by scientific research from both an industry  and a government perspective: During a long career at Bell Laboratories from  the mid-1960s to 2000, and more recently, as director of the Department of  Energy's Office of Science since 2009. American strength and prosperity since  the end of World War II have depended critically on American leadership in  science and continue to do so today. Indeed, federal support for basic research  has never been more important, since industry no longer funds such research. 

“Times  have simply changed. During my career at Bell Laboratories, there was  tremendous support for basic research. However, that was a period when research  was yielding many new results relevant to communications -- Bell's core  business. In addition, wartime inventions such as radar and the atomic bomb  created an atmosphere where for many years it was believed that one only needed  to plant the seeds of research and wait for the flowers to grow. Yet today the  business world is driven increasingly by the short-term need to sustain  quarterly profits. It can no longer afford basic research.

“That  is why the work of agencies such as the DOE Office of Science is so vitally  important today. Less known than some other federal science funding agencies,  the Office of Science is in fact a major pillar of America's science effort --  the largest sponsor of physical science research at universities and national  laboratories across the nation. Since its origins, the office has supported  research leading to over 100 Nobel prizes, including this year's physics prize  to Saul Perlmutter for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the  universe. Our office stewards 10 national laboratories and funds major  scientific facilities around the country -- including several synchrotron light  sources -- which have characterized many important materials and delineated  thousands of protein structures. The Office of Science initiated the decoding  of the human genome, partnering with the National Institutes of Health.  Recently, we built the world's first hard  X-ray laser, which opens new exciting areas of research. 

“We  are also the lead federal agency for basic research in energy, supporting  science leading to the development of new battery materials, new solar cells,  new methods for producing biofuels, and new materials, using both experiment  and high-end computation. With high-performance computers, we are a major  contributor to climate modeling, advancing knowledge needed to sustain planet  Earth.

“To  accelerate clean energy research, we have created new modes of research  funding. We have established three Bioenergy Research Centers to attack the  problems of biofuel production at the most fundamental level. We have created  46 Energy Frontier Research Centers to pursue basic energy-related research in  materials science, chemistry, geosciences, and bioscience. We have established  an Energy Innovation Hub aimed at developing fuels directly from sunlight.  These centers use a team approach that has brought together scientists in unprecedentedly  productive collaborations. We believe these efforts are paying off and are  playing an important role in moving America toward a clean energy future. 

“We  are also the main U.S. sponsor of fundamental research in particle physics and  cosmology, nuclear physics and fusion energy. Research in these latter fields  has generated multiple innovations, from the World Wide Web to synchrotron  light sources, plasma processing, nuclear power and accelerators and isotopes  for medicine and many Nobel Prizes. These fields are driven by large facilities  such as the international Large Hadron Collider and the Relativistic Heavy Ion  Collider and future facilities such as the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and  ITER. Although there can be no question that we must drive toward clean energy  solutions, we need to find ways to continue to support this work to advance our  knowledge of the universe in which we live. 

“In  a time of constrained budgets, we must plan carefully. We at DOE are taking  many measures to reduce overhead, streamlining our processes, cutting back on  personnel and making the system more transparent. But we must also keep our  commitments to funding clean energy and general scientific research, as well as  existing facilities and those in the construction pipeline. And we must honor  our international commitments to activities like the LHC and ITER. 

“So,  as we go forward in these fiscally challenging times, it is essential for  scientists, while advocating for their own fields, to come together to support  science broadly. Doing so will keep America on pace in our increasingly  competitive world. It will sustain our strength and prosperity, and maintain  our place in discovering... innovating... leading.”

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William  F. Brinkman is a physicist who has served since June 2009 as the Director of  the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy. During his career in  the private and public sectors, he has overseen research efforts at Bell Labs,  Sandia National Laboratories, and Princeton University

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