As we publish this issue of UD Research, it is impossible not to reflect on the irony of our theme, "Building a Safer World," chosen months ago to highlight the University of Delaware's significant activities related to safety, security and defense. By the time you read this, we will know more about the recovery from the triple tragedy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor failure in Japan. And yet while our attention is absorbed by the immediate, the broader issues that face us are timeless. In this country, where divisions about the nation's priorities have rarely been more stark, it is perhaps worth remembering a few words from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution — to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...."
To secure for ourselves and our posterity ... a safer, healthier, more prosperous, more sustainable, more just world in which opportunities abound for the advancement of our progeny and for the improvement of the human condition. What parent since the dawn of Homo erectus has wished for anything less? And however we prioritize the characteristics of the world that we would bequeath to future generations, how much of "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor," to quote another of America's founding documents, are we willing to commit to building that future?
The modern research university plays a unique role in the future of our civilization. On one hand, its role is fundamentally conservative, preserving and transmitting the cumulative knowledge of human society. On the other hand, our role is profoundly revolutionary, creating new knowledge that will transform society in ways that cannot be forecast. Nations that are eager to transform themselves are pouring unprecedented resources into research and development; here in the United States, we debate whether we can afford to invest.
We can't afford not to! Like any prudent investor, we need a balanced portfolio. Support for the full spectrum of R&D, from the fundamental to the applied, has been a hallmark of federal investments since Vannevar Bush's visionary elaboration of science as the "Endless Frontier" at the end of World War II and the subsequent establishment of the National Science Foundation. While NSF is at the core of science and engineering research and education, support for fundamental research across many of the mission agencies of the federal government, including the National Institutes of Health, and the Departments of Defense, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce and others, has been the "seed corn" that has grown up to produce the Nation's leading position in science and technology over the past 60 years. And we must not forget the corresponding support of scholarly and creative efforts in the arts and humanities by the respective national endowments for those fields. Man does not live by bread (or iPads or flat screens) alone.
Why does this matter? Because, according to one study, every dollar invested in R&D returns $40 to our economy in GDP growth. And because the workings of the R&D engine behind that return are far more complicated than media sound bites usually convey. Basic research cannot be summoned at will to solve problems of national importance. Conversely, while curiosity-driven basic research sometimes results in unimaginable breakthroughs, more often it does not. Regardless of whether one sees knowledge creation as providing the push, or application the pull, the route from discovery to application is not one-way — and it is far from straight or certain.
I hope that the stories in this issue will provide some insights into the nature of research in a leading institution like ours as well as into the exciting work that holds the promise of a better and safer world. From the fundamental research in chemical synthesis of UD's own Nobel laureate, Richard Heck, that has enabled the production of new drugs and agrichemicals, to work on flexible body armor that is leading to unexpected applications in the medical arena, to understanding the factors behind undesirable behaviors from bullying to terrorism, to the advances needed to meet the cyber security needs of our military, our banks, and every one of us, the interplay between fundamental research and application is unmistakable.
Finally, our most important investment in building the future is in those who will not only help to build it, but those who will live it. Our students benefit directly from the investment of federal, state and private funding in the research enterprise, and they are the ones who will lead it in the future, who will compete on the global playing field. As we said in the Path to Prominence,™ we will achieve levels of excellence, intensity and breadth of research and of graduate and post-doctoral education never before seen at the University of Delaware.
We're on our way!