By Michael Lucibella
Following the release of the iPad 3, speakers on Capitol Hill recently extolled the important role that federally funded basic scientific research plays in the foundation of future technological innovation. Industry leaders in technological innovation and a Nobel laureate disassembled a virtual iPad to show Congress the many ways federal research contributed to the popular device.
The Task Force on American Innovation, an advocacy organization promoting robust federal funding of scientific research, sponsored the event, along with the American Physical Society, IEEE-USA, Computing Research Association, Materials Research Society, Texas Instruments and the American Chemical Society. The Task Force is composed of institutions of higher education, businesses, trade associations and scientific societies. APS is a founding member of the organization. The Task Force presented its first “Deconstructing the iPad” briefing to Capitol Hill staffers last year.
Before a standing-room only audience of congressional staffers and research funding advocates, the speakers made the case that the payoff from federal support of basic scientific research was worth the investment. Much of the technology in an iPad, including integrated circuits, the Internet, touch screens and GPS, can trace its origin to basic scientific research sponsored by the government.
“The iPad isn’t a culmination of technology; it’s a mile marker of a continuum of innovation that’s improving our quality of life all across the board,” said Luis von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and inventor of the online authentication program reCAPTCHA. “Federal support for early stage or basic research is truly an investment, which has a history of demonstrating extraordinary payoff in the explosion of new technologies that touch nearly every aspect of our life, and in economic terms, in the creation of millions of jobs.”
Nobel laureate William Phillips, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), emphasized how federal funding is more important than ever for basic scientific research, filling holes left by private industry.
“The long- term stuff, the stuff that decades ago led to the things that we have today, is not being funded by industrial research labs anymore… Bell Labs, General Motors, Xerox, RCA all had really strong basic research laboratories. Those don’t exist anymore,” Phillips said. “We’ve had to rely on the federal government as the source of those kinds of funds.”
Phillips highlighted the iPad’s GPS unit as a technology developed by the U.S. military that evolved into a big industry. Even more fundamentally, he pointed to the government’s research into atomic clocks in the 1940s as the underlying technology that allows a GPS unit to work. The first atomic clock was built at the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) in 1949 as a way to precisely measure time.
“When [Norman] Ramsey came up with this idea in 1949, nobody had any idea that you could make a global positioning system; it wasn’t even a gleam in somebody’s eye. Nobody was thinking along those lines,” Phillips said. “But it didn’t take long, once we had atomic clocks working, before people started to figure out all the wonderful things you can do with them.”
Technologies like the transistor, which forms the basis of today’s microchips, are also products of federally sponsored research. Vice President of Texas Instruments, Martin Izzard, highlighted the integrated circuit as something that began as an experiment in fundamental science years ago, but evolved into a crucial building block for most modern electronics.
“The integrated circuit itself and the microchip is something that, through now 50 years of staggering amounts of miniaturization and increased complexity, has brought us to the point where these integrated circuits can provide the functionality that you see in an iPad,” Izzard said.