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Restoring The Foundation: Roundtable Discussion on the National Laboratories

On November 6, 2014, at the University of Chicago, Jonathan Fanton introduced a roundtable discussion on the national laboratories. In these excerpted remarks, Dr. Fanton discusses the opportunity for public-private partnerships involving the national laboratories, and their potential scientific productivity and intellectual rewards. He also shares examples of the relationships that the Academy has built with the national labs through the years.

Today’s discussion will examine useful steps that could be taken in the near term to facilitate public-private partnerships involving the national labs. We are delighted to have the leadership of Argonne and Fermilab here, as well as several of their industry and university partners.

The Academy has enjoyed many rich collaborations with the national labs over the years. In fact, the very first Stated Meeting of the American Academy to be held in the Midwest was at Fermilab in April 1975. Robert Wilson, the first Director of Fermilab, described the operation of the Batavia accelerator and introduced the evening’s speaker, Academy Fellow Valentine Telegdi, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago. Professor Telegdi opened his remarks to the Academy reflecting on his mission as a Fellow of the Academy and researcher:

It is a great burden to be introduced in the Fermilab as the Fermi Professor from the Enrico Fermi Institute. This constitutes triple jeopardy, to say the least. Why, then, did I accept this assignment? First, because I feel that belonging to the American Academy is not only an honor but a commitment to communicate. Second, because I want to convince you that all the technical marvels of this laboratory are nothing but tools in our quest to find simplicity and harmony in nature, a quest which must be based on precise and reliable experimental evidence. Third, because no one—in particular not an experimenter working in this laboratory—can refuse anything to Bob Wilson.

A few years later, in 1978, University of Chicago physicist and Academy Fellow Robert Sachs chaired a joint American Academy–Argonne symposium to examine the controversy surrounding the use of plutonium as an energy source. The resulting book National Energy Issues–How Do We Decide? Plutonium as a Test Case stressed the socioeconomic implications of alternative energy policies, such as their effects on income distribution, and the political realities that determine national energy policy.

In the early 1990s, the Academy collaborated with the Argonne National Laboratory and the Midwest Consortium of International Security Studies to organize two conferences on global climate change. The first focused on international security issues, the second on social and economic consequences. Among the topics discussed were the economic effects of both global warming and policies to reduce the rate of carbon dioxide emission; government and public perceptions of the problems; and institutional capacity for dealing with international problems likely to have severe local impacts.

Subsequent Academy studies have focused on energy and the environment in periods of international political and economic change. Our current project on the Alternative Energy Future continues to examine these issues, including through the 2011 report Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science, and a special double issue of the Academy’s journal, Dædalus. The vision behind our recent work area has come from Robert Fri, who sadly passed away last month, and from his cochair, Maxine Savitz, who will continue to lead the project.

The Academy has also been concerned with the state of scientific research in the United States. The Academy’s 2008 report Advancing Research in Science and Engineering (ARISE) recommended increased support for early-career scientists and high-risk, high-reward research.

Last year, the Academy published a second report, ARISE 2: Unleashing America’s Research & Innovation Enterprise, on the issues facing the U.S. science and technology community. ARISE 2 suggests steps to strengthen transdisciplinary research collaborations among universities, corporations, and government agencies.

Our current report, Restoring the Foundation is based on three fundamental observations: first, that a strong U.S. economy is vital to the welfare and prosperity of the American people; second, that competitiveness in today’s global economy requires maintaining an edge in technology and innovation; and third, that path-breaking discoveries rely on steady investments in fundamental, curiosity-driven research.

This meeting is the first of several roundtable discussions we are holding across the country to examine the potential for deeper partnerships among universities, industry, and government, including the DOE laboratories. Our objective this afternoon is to examine useful steps that could be taken in the near term to facilitate public-private partnerships involving the national labs. I look forward to the discussion and encourage you to contact us with any additional thoughts that occur to you in the weeks ahead.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Restoring the Foundation cochair Neal Lane; Congressman Randy Hultgren, a member of the US Congress since 2011 and member of the Financial Services and Space, Science & Technology Committees; and Congressman Bill Foster, former Fermilab scientist and part of the team that discovered the Top Quark, as well as an elected Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.

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