How'd You Get to Be So Good?

I was trying to track down some details of some work-related history and ran across this, which just happened to have my search terms in it (though not in close proximity in the text). It’s a Congressional hearing from 2006 on how the recent NIST Nobel laureates view science policy.

This is not today’s congress, i.e. this was not chaired by Lamar Smith, and all that that engenders, so even though the GOP hasn’t been particularly cozy with science in some time, this dates to a time when things weren’t quite as bad as today. Plus, this hearing wasn’t discussing social science or global warming.

It’s a transcript, so it’s not polished and there’s a lot of fluff, but there are parts that are quite good. I know from experience that Bill Phillips (Nobel in ’97) and Eric Cornell (’01) are good science communicators; I can’t recall ever hearing Jan Hall (’05) give a talk but his testimony is pretty clear as well.

The hearing will address these overarching questions:

1. Why has NIST been so successful at cultivating Nobel Prize winners?

2. What are the implications of the Nobel Prize-winning research at NIST and how can that work get used outside of NIST?

3. What steps are most necessary to improve U.S. performance in math, science and engineering, and U.S. competitiveness?

What directed my attention to the transcript was related to Bill Phillips’ work on laser cooling and trapping

One application of low-temperature physics is technology to improve the accuracy of atomic clocks. By cooling atoms of cesium, scientists have made atomic clocks that are a billion times more accurate than an ordinary wristwatch.

From Bill’s testimony:

Today, laser-cooled atoms define time. At the naval observatory, they keep time for our military. They synchronize GPS, which guides everything from military jeeps to commercial aircraft. NIST’s standard clock is accurate to less than one second in 60 million years. We like to call this “close enough for government work.”

The naval observatory mention was one part that garnered the hit on Google; apparently he talks us up on pretty much every occasion. We invited him out to visit us last summer when we declared our fountain clock ensemble to be fully operational (and were not subsequently destroyed by the rebel alliance), and got to hang out for a while. One thing we talked about is what he discusses below on government investment in science.

Later on in his prepared statement he describes how he pursued laser cooling — first as a bit of a hobby, with scrounged equipment, but later on as a primary research investigation, with proper funding. And, I might add, with minimal interference from a bureaucracy which might demand immediate commercial application from research (just the normal government bureaucracy to inhibit work). He speaks of realizing the application to clocks, but those clocks and frequency standards didn’t come to fruition for several decades, and even then that was pretty fast for basic research to get going, to make a discovery, and for that discovery to have a significant impact. Such is the scale of science, and that’s the reason why scaling back on government investment will not be noticed at the commercial level for quite some time. Inertia is the problem here. We’re coasting on older investment, and we won’t be able to quickly (if ever) regain any lead we have should we lose it. You can’t recreate a decade’s worth of research overnight, even if you threw a lot of money at the problem. As the saying goes, it takes a woman nine months to make a baby, but you can’t get nine women together to make a baby in a month. There’s no substitute for continued, deliberate investment in basic research.

Bill Phillips, in his prepared statement

The invention of the transistor at Bell Telephone Labs set the stage for a booming electronics industry that has sustained much of the U.S. economy. It came from a strong and sustained program in basic research at Bell Labs, one that was mirrored in other industrial labs like RCA, Raytheon, Ford, Xerox, IBM, and so forth. Today, many business analysts seriously contend that AT&T never got a significant return on its research investment and denigrate the value of any long-range, basic research in any industry, focusing instead on very short-term return on investments. Today, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self in regard to basic research and that sort of far-sighted support of research has virtually disappeared from American industry. I don’t know if we can ever expect to return to the golden age of industrial research, but I strongly believe that we must, as a nation, regain and maintain that level of basic research if we are to remain competitive in a world economy. If industry cannot or will not take its traditional share of this responsibility, I believe that government must compensate.

I think that this is not happening, and things have gotten worse in the last several years as science funding has been cut. We’ll wake up in a decade or two and wonder why so much of the innovation is happening elsewhere and it’s going to be because the government stopped funding science at a level necessary to move forward, mainly because of a powerful few who hated science and blocked its progress. Our “return on investment” can’t be the criterion we use to decide on basic research, because you simply don’t know what you’re going to find.

From Eric Cornell’s statement

The big question is what is going to be the big new industry of 2020? If I knew the answer, I would not be here in front of you testifying–I’d be off setting up my own high-tech venture capital company instead. No one knows the answer for sure, that is why scientific research and discovery is so important. Without knowing for sure what the next big thing will be, we can remain cautiously optimistic that that big thing will be an American thing.

Remember, this was from 2006. I wonder if his take would be different today, given trajectory of science funding? But again, note the underlying thought here: it’s research, and you don’t know what you’re going to find until you go out and find it. Any and every interruption can stop research, but it requires time to get it going again. All too often you have to go back to square one and start over from scratch.