APS News

Research Corporation Supports Basic Research in Academia

For more than 80 years, fledgling physicists, chemists and astronomers struggling to fund their research projects have found support through the Research Corporation, a privately funded, nonprofit philanthropic organization dedicated to the support of scientists and their work. Now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its formal award program, the foundation has a unique philanthropic mission to make inventions and patent rights more available and effective to manufacturing, and to devote any new resources derived from them to aid in the advancement and extension of technical and scientific investigation, research and experimentation at scholarly institutions.

The corporation also makes general awards in support of projects from nonprofit institutions of higher learning and scientific associations that fall outside its regular programs, but that nevertheless enhance science research or the infrastructure of science. For example, it provides funding for the APS Award for Research in an Undergraduate Institution and the APS Edward A. Bouchet Minority Lectureship. It also sponsored the publication of They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier, by Sheila Tobias, which explored problems in science education.

Grants are made for original research in chemistry, physics and astronomy at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Canada. The foundation was established in 1912 by Frederick Gardner Cottrell, a scientist, inventor and philanthropist who invented the electrostatic precipitator for controlling industrial air pollution. Cottrell believed that academic inventions should be developed in the public interest, and that a share of the profits should be reinvested in the scientific and technological fields that produced them. Hence, proceeds from his device provided the primary source of the organization's $106 million endowment. The foundation also administers other inventions contributed by public-spirited scientists, including cortisone; the first antifungal antibiotic; the concept of the laser; hybrid seed corn; anticancer drugs and cardiac pacemakers, and the vitamins A, B1 and B12.

"The foundation supports people and their programs, rather than bricks and mortar or broad institutional initiatives," said Brian Andreen, vice president of the Research Corporation of the rationale behind the organization.

However, the agency's guiding philosophy also recognizes that the foundations of academic science rest not only upon research, but also upon the public understanding of science, according to Andreen. "Effective communication of the power, role and value of science must be conveyed to the public at large if funding is to remain strong," he said. "The torch must also be passed on to the next generation of scientists, which must include women and under-represented minorities."

The agency currently makes between 200 and 300 awards each year, totalling more than $4.5 million in 1995 and nearly $5 million in 1996. Its programs have assisted in the early research of about 15,000 scientists, 27 of whom have won Nobel Prizes. Prominent past recipients include Carl Wieman of JILA/University of Colorado, who became the first researcher to achieve Bose-Einstein condensation last year, as well as 1996 Nobel Prize winners Richard Smalley and Robert Curl (Rice University) and Robert Richardson (Cornell University).

Funds are distributed primarily through seven formal award programs. The largest is the Cottrell College Science Awards, intended to encourage research with undergraduates through the support for research projects with the potential to add to fundamental scientific knowledge. The awards, which totalled about $2,800,000 in 1996, are designed to provide summer support and currently average about $31,000, covering such expenses as student and faculty summer stipends, equipment and supplies, travel costs to use off-campus facilities, and other services or requirements deemed essential to the research. The principal investigator must have a faculty appointment in a department of astronomy, chemistry or physics in a non-Ph.D.-granting institution in order to be eligible.

The Cottrell Scholars program rewards beginning faculty members desiring to excel at both teaching and research. Awards are for $50,000, to be used at the scholar's discretion, and are available only to tenure-track professors in Ph.D.-granting departments in their third year of appointment. Eighteen such awards were made in 1996, totalling $900,000.

The Partners in Science program is intended to provide high school teachers with opportunities to work at the cutting edge of scientific research, better enabling them to bring inquiry-based methodologies into the classroom. Awards of roughly $14,000 apportioned over two years are made to colleges and universities to support collaborative summer research between high school science teachers and a faculty member with an active research program in a natural science department. Presently these awards are available only in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The program also seeks to make high school science teaching a more attractive career option, to help teachers guide students toward careers in science, to develop new teaching strategies, and to foster long-term scholarly collaborations.

Research Opportunity Awards are designed for mid-career scientists of demonstrated productivity seeking to explore new areas of research, and typically are in the range of $10,000 to $25,000. "Even proven academic scientists may sometimes need help to re-establish or re-direct their research in promising new directions," said Andreen.

The ultimate goal of these awards is to seed a vigorous, competitive basic research program. The institution is expected to provide matching funds. Eligible applicants must be tenured faculty without major research funding, and must be nominated by the chair of a Ph.D.-granting astronomy, chemistry or physics department.

The newest addition to the corporation's programs is the Research Innovation Awards, scheduled to go into effect sometime this year. These awards are intended for faculty in the first two years of a tenure-track appointment at a research university. According to Andreen, the foundation expects to award about 60 grants each year, of up to $35,000 each.

In addition to the formal award programs, the Research Corporation will occasionally invite proposals from promising candidates in private or public undergraduate chemistry or physics departments that produce a high volume of science graduates, based on suggestions and input from the academic community. "A very small group of undergraduate colleges have been conspicuously successful at producing science graduates," said Andreen of the rationale for the program. "The number of these highly productive schools is not growing."

Despite its humble beginnings, the Research Corporation became an engine of social change that has had a profound effect on science, education and industry today.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin