Today in Stockholm, the Nobel Prizes will be presented to the 2018 Nobel Laureates, several of whom share connections to The Science Coalition’s member universities. The acclaimed work of these physicists, chemists, medical researchers, and economists are proof positive of the lasting impact and global reach of federal funding for fundamental research.
Put simply: Without sustained investment in fundamental research, groundbreaking work like that of the 2018 Nobel Laureates would not be possible.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three individuals whose work has laid the foundation for transformational uses of lasers. Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou, who share the award and have ties to the University of Rochester, Princeton University, and the University of Michigan, began their work in the mid-1980s at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Today, chirped pulse amplification is used in every high-powered laser and enables doctors to perform millions of corrective Lasik eye surgeries each year.
Arthur Ashkin, an alumnus of Columbia University, also received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on optical tweezers and their application to biological systems. Optical tweezers use lasers to move molecules and allow scientists to understand movement from the smallest scale. These tweezers can sort healthy cells from infected ones – like cancer cells – and have the potential to impact future disease prevention and treatment.
Engineering innovative and sustainable approaches to medical treatment was a common theme amongst prize winners this year. Frances Arnold, who earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton and her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, was honored with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She is recognized for “the directed evolution in enzymes,” which has dramatically reduced the volume of toxic chemicals used in the production of everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Her work is already used in Januvia, medicine that helps treat type 2 diabetes. In the future her methods may be applied to manufacture environmentally-friendly fuels from renewable sources.
Similarly, immunologist James Allison received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his groundbreaking work in cancer therapy, conducted in part over a 20-year period at the UC Berkeley’s Cancer Research Laboratory. His fundamental research explored how the immune system fights infection, shaping contemporary strategies for treating cell malignancies. By targeting the immune system rather than the cancer itself when designing drug treatment combinations, the life expectancy for patients with rapidly mutating cancers has increased from seven months to three years. In some cases, patients appear to be cured entirely.
Concern for the health of the planet also defines the work of William Nordhaus, a Yale graduate and faculty member, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to environmental economics. In the 1970s, Nordhaus developed an economic model to assess the costs of climate change, which continues to inform policy decisions and consistently demonstrates the merits of a carbon tax. Nordhaus shares the award with Paul Romer, who has ties to New York University and MIT. Romer pioneered the endogenous growth theory, which argues growth is best driven by organic forces in the market. The most organic of all market forces? Ideas. Romer created a mathematical model that shows investment in fundamental research leads to new ideas and economic growth, which in turn creates a virtuous cycle of discovery and growth.
From the most microscopic levels of medicine to information that informs global policy, the work of all of these laureates stems from fundamental research. Each of these winners serves as a powerful reminder of the value of fundamental research. Their work affirms that curiosity-driven research born in the labs and offices of universities – much of which relies upon federal funding – has real, tangible impacts. They also underscore that no discovery is too small to change to the world and supporting the future of science is always a good idea.