January 1, 2000; p. 5A
Copyright 1999 American Chemical Society

A Highly Unoriginal Idea

In 1267, Roger Bacon, the Oxford University monk and scholar, wrote to Pope Clement in his Opus Tertium (liberal translation from the Latin), “I have worked in the sciences all my life, obtaining much that is useful. I sought the friendship of all those who are wise. I caused the young to be instructed in languages and geometrical figures, in numbers and instruments, and in many needful matters. Through the 20 years in which I labored specially in the study of wisdom, careless of the crowd’s opinion, I have spent a large sum of my own funds in this endeavor. I have examined everything useful to the purpose, and I know how to proceed, and with what means, and I know what are the impediments; but I cannot go on for lack of funds.”

The same problem
Now, as we enter the year 2000, in spite of many seeming advances in societal institutions, we face the same problem, especially in instrumentation. Insufficient funds are available to support the development of new instruments and new measuring techniques. The plight of instrument funding has been made ever more sharply apparent to me while serving on the steering committee for the workshop “Analytical Instrumentation for the Next Millennium” (chaired by Jean Futrell of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; see http://www.emsl.pnl.gov:2080/docs/ainm/ for the final report). Although the measurement sciences underpin what we know, what we can know, and what use we can make of that knowledge, these facts seem to be only dimly perceived by those responsible for allocating resources.

To test the validity of this assertion, consider the following. The gross domestic product for the United States for the first quarter of 1999 is estimated to be $8.8 trillion. The federal science and technology budget is estimated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at about $48.3 billion. Excluding large facilities, I estimate the support for new chemical analysis instrumentation development among all federal agencies to be less than $100 million a year.

Worse, the criteria for funding proposals often work against instrumentation development. For example, the National Institutes of Health study sections repeatedly cry out for hypothesis-driven research and judge instrumentation proposals by what hypotheses are being critically tested. I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s remarks on witnessing early manned (balloon) flight and being asked, “What use is it?” He replied, “What is the good of a newborn baby?” Our biggest advances still come from pursuing the unknown without slavish devotion to short-term objectives.

For example, research in the 1930s, which was devoted to measuring the magnetic moments of nuclei, was predicated on work done in the late 1920s on the quantization of angular momenta. Who would have imagined where such fundamental research would lead? It did give rise to magnetic resonance imaging, which allows whole-body pictures without the use of ionizing radiation, and to the global positioning system, which allows you to locate yourself anywhere on the earth. More examples abound. The measurement of molecular rotational moments of inertia by microwave spectroscopy in the 1950s led to the discovery and development of lasers, which, in turn, led to the bar code readers that pervade our lives. Would anyone dare to predict in what directions fundamental instrumentation breakthroughs of the future might lead? Such breakthroughs, however, do not happen without appropriate investment—an investment that is stable, steady, and of a size commensurate with advances that can be expected to occur.

I wonder if, many years from now, someone else interested in instrument development will lament about not being able “to go on for lack of funds.” If the past is any guide, I fear so.

Richard N. Zare
Stanford University

Top || AC Home || Contents || Search