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Scientists Call for Interdisciplinary Research

Photonics Spectra
Apr 1999
Robert C. Pini

The full benefit of photonics to applications in chemistry, biology and material sciences is far from being realized because of barriers to interdisciplinary research. So says Richard Zare, past chairman of the National Science Board.
Writing in Science magazine together with Norman Metzger, the executive director of the National Research Council Commission on Physical Sciences, Zare urged federal policy-makers to develop a program of support for interdisciplinary teams that reach out across departmental boundaries to research and teach on exciting problems.
The investment is part of bmp Mobility's broader strategy to buy minority stakes in laser makers with complementary business. In parallel, the company has invested in LG Laser Graphics GmbH in Kleinostheim, Germany, which manufactures Nd:YAG and argon-ion pump lasers and power supplies. Laser Graphics will buy SLI products and distribute them in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. "We try to take minor investments and bring the players together," said Lars Kaper, bmp Mobility consultant.
Such support, Zare said in an interview, could open the floodgates of discovery as investigative methods develop and as new techniques harness light to study fundamental processes. For example, the use of laser tweezers could accelerate the study of molecular behavior, helping scientists understand motion and energy transfer, and allowing them to apply experimental results more quickly.
Zare said that interdisciplinary research would boost understanding of complex events such as communication between neurons or the settling of toxic pollutants in the environment. "We're asking for a dynamic picture," he said. Because of its broad focus, interdisciplinary research could be the key to solving many of the complex problems that modern society faces.
As proposed, funding for a program of "adequate critical mass" would come to $75 million per year, distributed to a competitively selected group of 50 interdisciplinary teams in five-year grants of $1.5 million annually.
For government bean counters looking at the bottom line, the outcome may be hard to quantify. But when asked about economic payoff, Metzger pointed to achievements in the hybrid fields of chemical engineering, biochemistry and space physics. "In the past, where different fields have come together to create new fields, the payoff has been great," he said.
According to Mary Tang, a research scientist at the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility, good research work is frequently not funded because of its interdisciplinary nature. Even worse, she said, there is no infrastructure in academia that can bring people together to develop interdisciplinary approaches.
The Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics at the University of Colorado in Boulder represents one of the few examples of this type of cross-disciplinary research in the country. Established in 1963 to support the mission of NASA, it later witnessed the pioneering development of stabilized lasers and precision frequency measurements. The results were instantly available to institute chemists for applications in reaction dynamics, precision spectroscopies and precision electron affinity measurements.
According to W. Carl Lineberger, a chemistry professor at the Colorado institute, "Interdisciplinary research allows a much more complex fundamental research. We've seen enormous synergism [here] that was not obvious" at the outset.

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