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A Word from the Wise is Sufficient

Some of the country’s most promising young scientists, in Washington this week to be honored at the White House, offered some useful insights for policymakers about the nation’s science innovation ecosystem: 1) The United States has a lot going for it– fine universities and talented, curious and innovative people eager to bring about monumental transformations, 2) Government funding is critical– often the only source for basic research and 3) Scale back on item #2 and you compromise #1.

At a press roundtable today recipients of Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) were unanimous in saying a steady and consistent funding stream helps maintain the country’s brain power and world class R&D infrastructure. It also begins a process that can lead to successful commercialization of ideas and discoveries.

Michael Escuti, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University, affirmed that money he has received from the National Science Foundation has leveraged private capital and led to a small business startup. His has pioneered the development of liquid crystal “polarization gratings” which could have a wide array of applications from battlefield communications to advanced cameras.

Noah Cowan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, studies how animals process sensory information to control their movement and is leading innovative research in biologically inspired robotic systems. Even though the work might have commercial applications and could certainly have societal benefits such as disaster recovery to space exploration, he concedes that private companies are “not in the best position” to fund basic curiosity like his that could be the first steps toward transformational breakthroughs. His work is supported by the NSF as well.

That is not to say there are not better ways to federal design grants. With the help of both NSF and private grants, Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Stony Brook University, is doing neurological research that integrates information from fields as varied as physics and economics. She said one aspect of grants from business is that business likes “clear deliverables.” She cites the rapid completion of human genome project, once it moved toward the private sector, as an example of how the business model’s demand for clear milestones can advance research, development and commercialization is effective.

Dirk Englund, assistant professor of electrical engineering and applied physics at Columbia University, has seen this first-hand at the Defense Research Project Agency. He said that unlike Europe, “the United States is very good at keeping you thinking about milestones.” While this can create a more competitive and stressful research environment, he said it also enhances the energy and focus of the work. Englund is a leading researcher in the emerging fields of chip-based quantum optics and nanophotonics. His research addresses problems in communication, computation, sensing and efficient information technology.

Still, Mujica-Parodi cautioned that private money often has strings attached and public funding is essential for a lot of research.

“It might be tempting in this era of stringent budgets for industry to pick up more of the tab but there is a price to be paid. Private funding introduces a conflict of interest,” she said, adding that a country that cuts it public R&D today cannot be at the leading edge in the global economy of the future.

Chip-based quantum optics, liquid crystal “polarization gratings,” high definition imaging of the human brain and superconducting detectors aren’t the topics of chit chat at Washington fundraisers but the economic health of the country is. In discussions on how to chart the nation’s economic future, Washington needs to follow the advice of the country’s most talented scientific innovators.


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