Investing in the Future: The Role of Basic Science

March 10, 2014 | Jean Phillips

Fifty years ago, the Kennedy administration promoted national investment in basic scientific research as a way to spur meaningful technological growth. As John F. Kennedy said in his address to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on October 22, 1963, “We realize now that progress in technology depends on progress in theory; that the most abstract investigations can lead to the most concrete results; and that the vitality of a scientific community springs from its passion to answer science’s most fundamental questions.”

That realization encouraged renewed investment in science throughout the United States, and significantly in Madison. The building housing the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) was one example.  Built with financial support from NASA and the National Science Foundation, as well as from the State of Wisconsin, the building was dedicated in October 1969 “to the understanding of man’s physical environment and its use for the benefit of mankind.”

From the beginning, SSEC has conducted basic and applied science and technology research. To encourage cross-collaboration between theory and its practical applications, Verner Suomi, SSEC founder, placed several lab rooms and a machine shop amidst the conference rooms and offices housing scientists. The results were noteworthy.

Suomi’s theoretical ideas for a new flux radiometer led to real instruments designed with engineering colleague Robert Parent. After their construction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, instrument test flights from Cape Canaveral and VandenBerg Air Force Base were part of the trial and error process that produced the first satellite measurements of the sun-earth energy balance; the earliest measures of climate. The 1959 advent of earth remote sensing relied on the Suomi-Parent freedom to create, to fail, to try again, and to ultimately succeed. Those early endeavors ushered in a whole new era of investigations of earth and its atmosphere based on measurements from satellite-borne instruments.


Trial, Error, Success: Three Heat Balance Launches in One Year

1959: 1st Try: Verner Suomi (left) and Robert Parent’s instrument for measuring earth’s heat balance was included in payload of Vanguard SLV-6, launched on 22 June. A faulty second stage pressure valve caused mission failure.

1959: 2nd Try: Instrumentation developed by Suomi and Parent to measure the earth’s heat balance included in payload of Explorer 7X, launched on 16 July. The rocket was intentionally destroyed 5.5 seconds after liftoff due to a power supply failure.

1959: 3rd Try: Verner Suomi with Explorer 7 which carried the successful Thermal Radiation Balance Experiment, the first earth-focused weather experiment

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the University of Wisconsin has unveiled major advances in science to the state and the Nation. They include Harry Steenbock’s process to enhance vitamin D content in food through UV irradiation in the 20s, Verner Suomi and Robert Parent’s spin-scan camera in the 60s, Larry Landweber’s fledgling internet in the Computer Science Network in the 80s, and Henry Guckel’s first working metal micromotor in the 90s (Jenny Price, OnWisconsin Magazine). The benefits of discoveries resulting from basic scientific studies were not always immediately apparent, but they became evident over time, creating a fertile field for technological development.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, an economist by training, recently noted, “America’s future economic prosperity depends on increased investments in research and education that will accelerate innovation and inspire future generations of scientists.”

SSEC benefits from investment in science. With sustained state and federal investment, SSEC has continued to thrive. Its scientists and engineers devise innovative solutions to environmental remote sensing problems that have real world implications in terms of saving lives and mitigating property loss.

The private sector has also benefited from federal support of university research. For example, the SSEC-developed Man-computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS) not only enabled scientists to derive winds from the geostationary images offered by the spin-scan cameras but it also created opportunities for spin-off companies to market weather visualization techniques. SSEC experiments with Fourier Transform Systems (including the High resolution Interferometer Sounder (HIS) on the ER2 airplane and the Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Interferometer (AERI) on the ground) achieved better vertical profiles of atmospheric moisture and temperature. The improvements in atmospheric profiles led to the construction by the aerospace industry of high spectral resolution instruments placed on NASA (Advanced Infrared Sounder, AIRS) and NOAA (Cross track Interferometer Sounder, CrIS) space platforms. As a further consequence, improved information about the atmospheric state from these remote sensing systems offered (and continues to offer) new opportunities to agricultural and weather forecast industries.

There are many more examples of basic science conducted at universities and associated research parks leading to technological advances that in turn have created spin-off companies and jobs. The fiscal payoff from the research dollars spent has been multiplied by factors of more than one hundred. The science of today feeds the technology of the future; when the science coffer is empty, there is nothing for technology to advance.

Kennedy finished his address to the NAS with hope and a sense of urgency:

“Science has made all of our lives so much easier and happier in the last 30 years. I hope that the people of the United States will continue to sustain all of you in your work and make it possible for us to encourage other gifted young men and women to move into these high fields which require so much from them and which have so much to give to all of our people. So the need is very great. Even though some of your experiments may not bring fruition right away, I hope that they will be carried out immediately. It reminds us of what the great French Marshal Lyautey once said to his gardener: ‘Plant a tree tomorrow.’ And the gardener said, ‘It won’t bear fruit for a hundred years.’ ‘In that case,’ Lyautey said to the gardener, ‘plant it this afternoon.’ That is how I feel about your work.”

Those trees planted more than fifty years ago are bearing fruit. The need to continue to plant more trees still exists.

By Paul Menzel and Jean Phillips