Fundamental Research and National Security

EDITORIAL - Fundamental Research and National Security. Walter Murphy. Ind. Eng. Chem. , 1948, 40 (3), pp 369–369. DOI: 10.1021/ie50459a001. Publica...
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Fundamental Research and National Security is fundamental research? How can it be utilized W to achieve the aid sought of it in the forthcoming National Science Foundation program?

alike, the fundamental knowledge produced by our federal science program nevertheless will achieve its basic purpose of strengthening our national security as compared with that of other nations. A comparable situation exists in our competitive industrial environment. American companies support the scientific literature because they know from experience that they gain more from it than the information they contribute. We are far from the millennium in this respect, but the trend is there. A very real danger exists in the administrative sitnation faced by the science foundation program. Accountability for expenditure of funds could force those responsible to place ever-greater emphasis on applied research at the expense of fundamental investieations. It is easv to .,eet coneresaional npproval for continuing an appropriation for npplied research when conrrrte benefits already have repaid tenfold the cost of the original work. The odds xgninst a given siiigle fundnnientnl investicntion oroducinr! results comDnrnLlc to nuclear fission are so griat as t o p u t any pari-mutuel ratio to shame. Will Congress nevertheless be perceptive enough to realize that the grand statistics of science make fundamental research our strongest resource? Courage of a high order will be required of the program’s administrator to keep this point clearly in view. On the part of Congress, it will take also a demonstration of faith in ultimate benefits never susceptible to precise measurement if the program is to succeed. This is a step quite removed from the normal suspicion with which our legislators view appropriation requests. w e sincerely hope Congresshas the vision to realize the essential distinction when it is considering the science foundation. Competency of administration Congress should expect and be prepared to evaluate the agency on this aspect ofits operations. But the scope and range of subjects investigated should be as wide as man’s concept of the universe, and the determination of the scope of the research program to be supported should be acknowledged as the prime responsibility of specialists. They must, however, educate the layman to the importance of the work. The layman will share the cost of the program and deserves a t least a clear appreciation of its requirements in personnel and resources. This obligation is essential. America’s strength lies in its freedom. This truth is just as valid for its science and technology as for its civil health. The actions of our nuclear scientists in the prewar days of 1940 and 1941 are evidence that proper discretion ordinarily will be exercised voluntarily for applications of our new fundamental knowledge that may show promise of becoming military “top secret” developments in the regrettable event of another war. The nation’s trust will be guarded adequately if it grants its scientists in time of peace the freedom of self-censorship. But even more important, free exercise of the curiosity of the scientific intellect must be encouraged if our ambitions for the federal program are to be achieved.



The basic ditrerence between fundamental and applied research is in the purpose of the researcher. An experiment is an experiment in either instance, and the individual data collected are both informative. But because the worker in the fundamental field is interested primarily in discovery, while the investigator in an applied field has exploitation in view, the path of their endeavors is readily distinguishable. The first usually will encompass an area, literally a mapping of territory previously little known. The latter ordinarily will have characteristics more nearly linear, with the actual oath between start and finish a line tortuous or straieht. - . many-tracked or single, according to the skill of tile rrsrnrcher and t1.e predictability of tho region lie tnivenw. h’evertlieless, fnr-rewhing geiiernl truths are sonietimui, discuveretl in the eourw of nDDlied research. a i d iirxtical hoDliratioirs that fairly beg tu hi&ploited are fkquently expostiidurin): fundnmeiitul studies. The applied and fiudamentnl fielJs cunnot be rigidly sepnriikd in the prqrain, for n e get srme of one a8 an inevitable by-proilurt of the other. (;overnineirtnl cncouritcen~cntof npplird Icnearcli nill. in some measure nt letlst, thus r ( d t inevitably in a siniultirneoiis inrrertse in mir arcumul>itimof fuii(1ainent~ilknowledge. This is the nntiiral coiollnry of the ncwpted fact that our oppoituuity for technologk:al advniicrmrnt is n function pf tlre kuorn fundamentnls nvaild)lr. This hitter rclationaliip is actually the basis for the science foundation program. This nation has achieved its present position in science and industry through an outstanding talent for converting general knowledge of natural laws into tools that strengthen our powers or ease our burdens. Our scientists lead the world in their ability to obtain practical benefit from the new knowledge continually becoming available. The vigorously competitive environment that is characteristically American apparently provides an unparalleled stimulus for the ingenious linking of fact to fact to yield invention. We have not been so pre-eminent in fundamental discovery, although our contributions have been numerous and important in this field. Two conclusions follow logically from these ohservations. First, our “storehouse of fundamental knowledge” will be virtually worthless if it is packed in mothballs through censorship or even through inadequate dissemination. Inspiration cannot be assigned or legislated to a single laboratory or government agency; yet inspiration is the key ingredient to revolutionary advances in technology. The term “store house” certainly does not mean the information should be buried in files. Benefits will come from the cross-fertilization between the minds of scientists, a result to be counted upon only after the information is widely disseminated. The second conclusion is that, even though made equally available to Americans, British, Russians, and Zululanders