U.S. Nobel laureates speak out

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science Correspondent  |  Nov. 18, 2002 at 8:26 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 (UPI) -- The newest group of U.S. scientists to win the Nobel Prize shared their views on a number of topics as they gathered Monday to meet with President Bush and prepare for their trip to Sweden.

Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson pointed out that Americans have made up one-third of all Nobel winners since 1901, and about half of all laureates since 1950.

"That says a lot about the quality of American research, and we realize that we need contact across the world with the United States," Eliasson told a news conference. "It's a very impressive record, and we're also paying tribute to the role of American research institutions and the importance of cooperation across borders."

Several of the laureates said one such research giant, the National Science Foundation, finally is getting the support it deserves, with congressional approval of a reauthorization bill doubling the agency's budget in five years. The bill authorizes more than $37 billion through 2007 and is headed to Bush's desk for his signature.

Although the government has strongly supported biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health, it is impossible to draw a line between such work and basic science work at the NSF, said H. Robert Horvitz, one of three co-winners of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

"Mathematics, computer science, chemistry and aspects of physics interface in incredibly close ways with biomedicine," Horvitz told reporters. "Support for the NSF has been screamingly deficient ... Both (NSF and NIH) should be supported much more strongly than they have been overall."

In particular, Congress needs to solve the budget issues and end the continuing resolutions that have hamstrung current NIH work, Horvitz said.

NSF-supported research aids society in many unexpected ways, said Riccardo Giacconi, one of three co-winners of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physics. Efforts in Giacconi's field of radio astronomy have helped in the creation of low-power X-ray machines, computerized body scans and even attempts to harness nuclear fusion as an energy source, he said.

"In some areas, the chances of getting (an NSF) grant have been going down, so this is a correction which is very vigorous and supported by many people," Giacconi told reporters. "This would be at a rate where the field can absorb it, it wouldn't be thrown-away money."

NSF support even played a role in this year's awards. Vernon L. Smith, a co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics, said an agency grant helped fund his work in 1962. The foundation should consider accepting less orthodox research proposals, he said, since the NSF peer-review process can sometimes shy away from unfamiliar territory.

At least one of the winners is more cautious about increased NSF funding. John Fenn, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for development of a method to study proteins and other large biological macromolecules, is concerned that an increasing amount of the grants given by the federal government for research was being used for institutional overhead.

"I am in favor of having it done so that the money gets into science and is not paying for other things in the university," Fenn said. "It's a gravy train." Fenn said. "The competition for more grant and overhead money is leading institutions to increase the size of their science departments which then have to draw international students to support themselves. Not all of these students have opportunities here or in their home countries -- leading indirectly to a sort of underground of graduate students shifting from research project to research project. I am very concerned about what's happening to American science. It is becoming a business," Fenn told UPI.

Conversations with the laureates also touched on the topic of supercomputing, as a conference on the topic began in Baltimore. Much of today's debate in the discipline revolves around whether to design a system for a specific challenge, as Japan has done with its Earth Simulator, or to create very large groups of general-purpose chips in what is known as massively parallel processing.

Both approaches have their benefits, Giacconi and Horvitz said. Biological systems are parallel in nature, so parallel processing could simulate them, Horvitz said, while specialized supercomputers could be better suited to delving inside individual components. Parallel systems should be better at assimilating the huge data sets involved in astronomy or genomics research, Giacconi said.

The Bush administration's restrictions on obtaining human stem cells, which can develop into many types of adult tissue, is hurting efforts to understand their possibilities, Horvitz said. Administration-approved sources of the cells are often tied up with proprietary licensing agreements, he said, and a broader selection of stem cells will go far in answering basic questions about them.

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