MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 5
Summer 2009
A New Commitment to Science and Technology R&D
The Role of Oceans in Climate Change
A New Method for Negotiating
Arms Control Agreements
The Science We Need and the
Needs of Science
System at a Crossroads: Rethinking Infrastructure and Mobility
Energy Transitions and Transformations
Society's Nervous System: A Key to Effective Government, Energy Efficiency, and Public Health
An Alternate Green Initiative
Rotten Apples or a Rotting Barrel: How Not to Understand the Current Financial Crisis
The Way to Sustainability
Making the Web Work for Science
A Note to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Budget of the United States Government (2005-2010): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (2009-2014): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (1962-2010): Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Selected Agencies
Printable Version

The Science We Need and the Needs of Science

Marc Kastner

The world urgently requires breakthroughs in science and engineering to meet two goals – renewable energy and global health. Without a reduction of CO2 emissions, the people of the world are undertaking a dangerous experiment – creating a new global environment and waiting to see whether they can survive in it. On the positive side, renewable energy technology could not only reduce CO2 emissions, but could also provide new industries to help the economy recover. Turning to global health, there have been spectacular advances in understanding the science of life and in medical technology. Now the convergence of the life sciences with the physical sciences and engineering offers the promise for more rapid progress in curing disease.

It is very unlikely that scientific and technological advances alone will solve these problems, but it is equally unlikely that they will be solved without such advances. Consider renewable energy. Some have argued that if we simply implement currently available technologies we can stop the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, if one looks closely at current technologies, every one of them has deficiencies that require new science and engineering to overcome. Here are some examples:

We cannot yet build batteries with sufficient energy storage to propel a good-size automobile 200 miles. New battery materials will be needed to make this possible.

Available solar cells are ready to offset electricity needs, and their cost is decreasing because of the increasing scale of production. However, their large-scale incorporation into electricity production will require cost reductions from new materials and geometries that are more dramatic than expected from simply scaling up manufacturing.

It is hard to believe that the United States, let alone China and India, will simply stop burning coal, the world’s most abundant and inexpensive fossil fuel, and we will therefore need to find a way to capture and permanently store the resulting CO2. The U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Fossil Energy, expects that the CO2 will be permanently sequestered deep underground in rock or saline aquifers. However, we do not know whether enough CO2 can be injected; whether it will stay underground or come out, and if it comes out, whether it will come out slowly or catastrophically; whether it will react with water and rock forming stable compounds or will pollute underground aquifers. To answer these questions requires a deeper understanding of the geochemistry and geophysics of CO2. These examples are from a recent report by a subcommittee of the Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Energy. None of the technologies that reduce CO2 emissions are without political obstacles, which may be even greater than the scientific and engineering ones. However, the politics will be even more difficult if the science is not well understood.

The life sciences have undergone two revolutions. The first began with the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 that gave birth to modern molecular and cellular biology. The second is the genomic revolution – the decoding of the entire DNA sequences of organisms. I am told that the cost of sequencing is decreasing at a more rapid rate than the cost of making transistors is decreasing according to Moore’s law, making it likely that sequencing will influence medical practice at an accelerating pace. These two revolutions have expanded our knowledge and understanding of biology and medicine at an astonishing rate, and many new diagnostic tests and drugs have been developed based on this science, improving lives for millions of people. In parallel there has been astonishing progress in medical technology. Collaborations among physical scientists, engineers, and doctors have given us CAT scans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and a wide variety of therapeutic devices.

Many of us believe that the convergence of the life sciences with the physical sciences and engineering is a third revolution. In some sense, the genomic revolution may be just the first example of this convergence, since it relies so heavily on technology and mathematics.

There is little doubt that investments in this convergence will lead to advances in knowledge that will translate into better detection, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases, and mankind will benefit from investment in this kind of research. MIT President Susan Hockfield recently wrote in Science about the third revolution. Global health will not improve without political and societal change, but the third revolution is sure to help.

These two areas of science are ones in which there will be great practical benefits, but one cannot have strong science in these areas without a scientific enterprise that is uniformly well supported. It is especially important not to neglect fundamental, curiosity-driven, disciplinary research. For this reason, it is important to pursue the goal of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, to double the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy Office of Science.

The stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by the President promises a short-term pulse of funds for science and engineering. This will provide much needed new equipment and may keep students and postdocs from leaving their labs for a year or two, hopefully until the job market improves. However, such short-term funding can be dangerous. Indeed, the doubling of the NIH budgets in the 1990s was wonderful, but its aftermath, four or five years of flat budgets, has been very painful. Young people, who, with great expectations, became graduate students in the life sciences at the beginning of the doubling, joined the ranks of untenured faculty members at a time when it became extremely difficult to secure NIH funding. We must be careful not to make commitments during the stimulus that we cannot sustain when it ends. The pressure to cut research funding will be intense when the economy recovers, because the federal deficits will be enormous. We must urge the President and Congress to provide sustained if modest growth in our research budgets in order to make the scientific and engineering breakthroughs the world so badly needs.

Back to top
Send your comments