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The Imperative for Accelerating the Advancement of Science

by Dr. Walt Warnick on Mon, 23 Sep, 2013

American Citizens Need Basic Research

Some time ago, a friend, a young father of two, lay in a hospital bed seriously ill. The physician said there was no treatment. The pancreas was secreting substances that were digesting itself and destroying surrounding tissue. Some patients recover on their own; others do not.

Natural laws may allow some remedy which will assist the body's own defenses and cause the pancreas to heal. If there was such a remedy, why did the physician not use it? The answer is the lack of knowledge -- not of just one physician, but of the medical profession as a whole. Unless the physician is a researcher, he waits for others to discover the remedy. He waits because no predecessor mastered the natural laws which govern the pancreas.

The young father in my story is a real person. His name is Vince Dattoria. As it happened, fate was kind to him. He recovered and eventually he returned to work for the Department of Energy. But he almost died because of ignorance, or shall we call it a lack of knowledge of natural laws?

Knowledge of natural laws requires research. The sharing of this knowledge helps keep us from relying on luck to survive. Almost every advance in the medical sciences has been made possible by a previous advance in the physical sciences. Daily, we see the results of research that have so improved people's lives. The human body is a chemical and physical problem, and these sciences must advance to enable us to conquer disease.

Exploratory surgery, done when the physician lacks any other way to learn the nature of a patient's problem, is less common now than in years past. This decline is attributable in large measure to imaging technology like computer-aided tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. CT and MRI scans came from research in physics. For creating the mathematical algorithm necessary for creating the images, DOE physicist Alan Cormack won the Nobel Prize in medicine, not in physics, in 1979. What separates ignorance and luck from medicine is little more than physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry are what we do in DOE.

The 20th century has been called the Century of Physics. Advances in the physical sciences produced nuclear power, space travel, computers, and numerous other advances. Now in the 21st century, life sciences are offering immense opportunities. Much of the progress in the life sciences is dependent upon prior advances in the physical sciences. Benefits of research in the physical sciences are evident in much of modern technology, from medical applications to cleaner power plants to the Internet.

OSTI Helps Provide the R&D Fuel

It has long been recognized that progress cannot be made unless knowledge is first shared. To fuel basic research, and the scientific progress that follows, access to scientific information must be quick, easy and efficient. Since 1947, the mission of OSTI has been to collect, preserve, disseminate, and manage STI resulting from the agency's enormous investments in R&D. Although paper and microfiche were the means of sharing R&D results in the past, digital technologies have raised the expectations of researchers, librarians and the public – information must be disseminated with almost instantaneous access, at little cost, and in full-text, mobile, and multimedia formats.

Over the years, OSTI has addressed these needs and expectations by providing a suite of innovative digital information resources of information, regardless of where it resides. For example, the DOE Science Accelerator provides one-stop searching through 12 of DOE’s databases including over 300,000 full-text technical reports, 1.4 million citations to journal articles, over 5.5 million e-prints, and non-text data and multimedia collections.  

Another fine example is that of a U.S. federal-wide resource, Science.gov. Founded in 2002, Science.gov has evolving into a state-of-the-art database that currently searches over 55 databases and over 2,1001 select websites from 15 federal agencies and is governed by the interagency Science.gov Alliance.  A Spanish Ciencia.Science.gov was launched for the 10th Anniversary in 2012. 

Both these search engines feed WorldWideScience.org, a multilingual search tool that finds information from national and international databases and portals from more than 70 countries.

These foundational, groundbreaking search tools for the physical sciences have made R&D information access quicker, cheaper, more convenient, and more complete than ever before.  

In other words, they are providing the fuel for accelerating the advancement of science – an imperative for enabling the tools our doctors need so that they can better assure that citizens in distress, such as my friend Vince, rely on more than just luck for survival.

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About the Author

Dr. Walt Warnick's picture
Dr. Walt Warnick
Former Director, U.S. DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information