Forty years ago, on July 20, 1969, the United States achieved an historic first when Apollo 11 Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon. Armstrong's now famous words, "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," fulfilled the challenge set out nearly a decade earlier by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon.
America's race to the moon also launched a generation of scientists. They were inspired by a sense of patriotism and the wonders of space and enabled by the country's newfound commitment to science following the Soviets' successful launch of the Sputnik satellite. The new R&D enterprise, built to support America's scientific ambitions and based largely on federally-funded research conducted at universities across the country, has had a remarkable effect on society and the economy. It has produced innovations in health, technology, energy, security, and defense. It has helped fuel the nation's economic growth. And, it has educated and trained new generations of scientists, engineers and doctors.
In anticipation of the anniversary of the first moon walk, The Science Coalition asked university researchers across the country to reflect on that event and share their thoughts about the next frontiers in science and what America must do to ensure that these scientific frontiers are reached. While each response is unique and reflective of the background of the respondent, together they make clear that there are many exciting new horizons in science. Research in such areas as energy and climate change, curing human disease, understanding the human genome, and answering questions about the Universe are, indeed, leading us to new frontiers.
The Science Coalition seeks to expand and strengthen the federal government's investment in university-based scientific, medical, engineering and agricultural research. Some highlights from the scientists' comments are below:
- "Perhaps more than anything, we need to address the scientific challenge of providing more effective, efficient and diverse sources of energy to drive the global economy, its citizens, and its infrastructure," said William McDonough, professor of geology at the University of Maryland.
- "Instead of looking for a single innovation to transform transportation, the next great challenge will be a revolutionary and holistic reinvention of vehicles. The next 'moon landing' will be a new science-driven way of approaching automobiles … that goes beyond slashing mpg or substituting gas with electricity," said Dennis Assanis, Director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and the W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory at the University of Michigan.
- "The 21st Century equivalent to putting a man on the moon will be our understanding of the human brain – and in particular, achieving the ability to stimulate the brain to repair itself, including restoring old memories and learning new information after damage and disease. … That understanding will revolutionize the way we treat devastating neurological injuries and disease," said Elissa Newport, Chair of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. "We're almost there – if we merely stop cutting science funding, these discoveries are around the corner."
- Most of the researchers have relied on federal grants throughout their careers to help support their work. And, like Dr. Newport, many spoke of the critical need for the U.S. to continue to invest in science and of what will be possible if there is strong and sustained funding for research.
- "We as a nation must realize that without a dedicated continuous support of scientific endeavors, our and our children's wellbeing cannot be sustained and improved. America must preserve its leadership in creativity by increasing funding for research and, even more importantly, by educating its children," said Alexander Rakhel, Distinguished Professor of Entomology, University of California Riverside, and Member of the National Academy of Sciences.
- "Like putting a man on the moon, answering these big questions would be a part of a journey to find our place in the Universe as well as preparing to extend our presence beyond earth. Few investments would leave a greater legacy to future generations or say more about our species," said Michael Turner, Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago and former Chief Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.
Materials provided by The Science Coalition. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.