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Seed of Solutions

Chris Field, Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute, reflects on basic research as a pathway to solving environmental challenges.

The diverse causes and interconnected mechanisms behind environmental challenges demand broadly interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and solutions. University researchers can and should play a role in developing these solutions, not just their academic antecedents.

Historically, the balance between contributions to basic knowledge and applications evolved more or less on its own.  Some researchers were consumed with the prospect of discovering new knowledge, and others were keen to use existing knowledge for new products and systems.

In his classic book, “Pasteur’s Quadrant,” Donald E. Stokes describes Nils Bohr as a prime example of a scientist solely interested in new knowledge and Thomas Edison as an archetype of strong focus on practical applications. In Stokes’s formulation, Bohr had little interest in whether his discoveries ever led to products, and Edison was unconcerned about a reputation for contributing to basic knowledge.

Stokes also identified Pasteur’s approach: combining basic discovery and practical solutions. Pasteur was a remarkable scientist. He moved from breakthrough to breakthrough with startling efficiency. He surmised key issues and designed definitive experiments that were often as dependent on ignoring specialists in the field as on digging into and directly testing underlying principles.

Pasteur’s concept of use-inspired basic science is a valuable guiding star. Still, almost every practical solution depends on a long sequence of basic discoveries. This is at the core of “Science the Endless Frontier,” the classic and hugely influential report from Vannevar Bush to the U.S. president in 1945. In the report, Bush laid the foundations for the modern science and technology enterprise. He argued that basic and applied research are both important and need independent support. Bush’s argument for basic research was grounded not only in the belief that it “is the pacemaker of technological progress,” but also on the experience that “applied research invariably drives out the pure.” Bush’s examples of the contributions of basic research in curing disease, winning wars and building vibrant economies made the original case for the federal funding of research universities.

Basic research continues to be foundational for every applied solution. For great examples, look at our Realizing Environmental Innovation Program (REIP), which provides grants to take promising ideas and prototypes to scale.

In 2017, the institute funded a REIP award to David Lentick and John Dabiri on bird-safe wind turbines. The concept is to build on understanding of bird vision to mount wind turbines with clear stay-away warnings for birds that are invisible or innocuous to humans. The basic research underpinnings of this project go back more than a century. Some of this research was motived by curiosity about how vision works and some came from questions about how birds choose mates or avoid predators. With this knowledge in hand, Stanford researchers can build in entirely new directions.

The 2018 REIP grant to Eric Appel and Craig Criddle is about preventing catastrophic wildfires, using a hydrogel-based fire retardant. Although this hydrogel is new, research on hydrogels goes back more than a century, especially to early investigations of the nature of the contents of the living cell. Investigations of the variable physical properties of hydrogels, which are critical for the Appel, Criddle application, go back to the 19th century. While the application as a fire retardant is new, researchers have been exploring hydrogel-based medical products for decades.

How, then, can the institute most effectively advance practical solutions? We need to understand that Bush was right about the importance of antecedent basic knowledge but so was Stokes about the value of grounding a program in Pasteur’s quadrant. We need studies across the spectrum of purely fundamental to solidly applied, with a rich appreciation that real advances always include both dimensions. We can’t all be Pasteur, but we can all aspire to contributions that make a difference across this spectrum.

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