Desperately seeking Sputnik for fundamental science

It is clear that researchers and the public need something
around which they can rally, but what should it be?

We have been pondering an important question: Do we need a Sputnik for fundamental science? We have become convinced that we do, which leads us to another question: What might our Sputnik be?
The need for increased funding for research and training became a national priority 55 years ago after the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, by the former Soviet Union. Sputnik inspired President Kennedy in 1961 to challenge NASA to put a man on the moon and return him to Earth before the close of that decade.
This challenge reawakened a national interest in science and support for funding of both applied and fundamental research. These investments paid off in many ways. The 1960s spawned a number of scientific discoveries — the first laser, the first kidney transplant, the first commercial communication satellite, the first human heart transplant and the first handheld calculator. NASA directed a successful round-trip manned flight to the moon in 1969. In addition, advances in our understanding of basic biomedical science, physics and astrophysics led to technological advances that today are part of everyday life.
But now the nation appears to have lost sight of the role of science and the need to maintain funding for science. What do we need to do to spur enthusiasm in lawmakers and the general public for fundamental research similar to the enthusiasm that was present after Sputnik?
First, let’s look at why the launch of Sputnik was so effective. One obvious and important reason is national pride: The Russians were beating us! But today, because of rapid communication and other factors, the scientific community is global. Appealing to national pride alone is not only short-sighted but counterproductive. Clearly, global scientific collaboration is necessary. Focusing on national competition could damage collaborations important for future advances and discoveries.
Today, when we do engage in public discourse about science, we often hear the refrain, “We put a man on the moon in 10 years, so why can’t we cure cancer?” What people fail to realize, and what scientists fail to communicate effectively, is that we understood the laws of physics and essential aspects of cosmology necessary to put someone on the moon and return them to Earth. But we don’t understand all the rules of cancer and a variety of other diseases and destructive natural phenomena. That’s why we need to support fundamental research!
Clearly, it’s a major challenge to convince the general public once again of the vital role of science, especially fundamental research, to maintain and improve our lifestyles and lives. So we are putting the question to you: How can we inspire widespread support for advances in fundamental research that provide the foundations on which practical discoveries and applications depend? Which mission or cause do you think could be the Sputnik of fundamental science?

Daniel RabenJoseph BaldassareDaniel M. Raben ( is a professor of biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University of School of Medicine. Joseph J. Baldassare ( is a professor of pharmacological and physiological science at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.

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