September 23, 2011 9:25 pm

Sailing away with the Nobel

The US navy’s grants have been behind 59 award-winning research projects in the past 59 years

When the Nobel prizes are announced next month, the world’s research funding agencies will be watching to see whether their grantees have won the ultimate accolade in science.

The leading funders of Nobel laureates include one surprising name: the US Office of Naval Research (ONR). Fifty-nine recipients of its grants have been honoured over the past 59 years, including Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of Manchester University, who won the 2010 physics prize for their discovery of graphene, the electronic wonder material of the 21st century.

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ONR’s Nobel-a-year average demonstrates the extraordinary – and generally unappreciated – role that the US armed forces, and in particular the navy, have played in supporting science and technology with no obvious military application. Their discoveries have made a significant contribution to the global knowledge that underpins engineering, physics, chemistry and even biology. This had led to many practical applications, from drug design to the first global numerical weather prediction system, and mobile phones to satellite navigation.

After President Harry Truman set up the Office of Naval Research in 1946, it became the main conduit for a vast post-war increase in federal funding for basic research (outside the field of medicine, where the National Institutes of Health led the way). ONR immediately set up an international arm, based in London, and grants flowed to scientists, not just in the US but worldwide.

An montage of microscopes on a navay ship

0pOne beneficiary was my father, whose career as a young chemist in the UK was greatly assisted by ONR grants to find new ways of making organic compounds. He was amazed (and grateful) that US taxpayers’ money should be funnelled towards a British scientist, with far fewer strings attached than his grants from the UK Science Research Council, and for work that might find use in the pharmaceutical industry but had no naval relevance.

Fifty years later, Andre Geim says much the same thing about ONR’s support for his team’s work on graphene in Manchester.

“The source is military in name only,” he says. “When the people [from ONR] approached me to write a proposal for funding, I asked them whether I should think about military or naval applications, and they said: ‘No, write only about fundamental research.’”

Geim, who is also supported by UK and EU research bodies, says ONR “has a unique modus operandi. I have never experienced so little bureaucracy, ever.” He was amazed when ONR requested a report on the progress of his research, and specified that it should not take more than an hour to complete. Other agencies are much more demanding, he says: “I have kept the ONR document to show my European funders.”

Although ONR is increasing external “peer review” (quality control) of its grants, the application and monitoring process is much lighter than in most other US government research agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), set up in 1950 to provide an overtly civilian funding stream for non-medical research. Grantees face no security vetting of their work and no restrictions on publication.

Individual programme managers at ONR have more freedom than those at non-military agencies to build relationships with scientists and back their ideas with generous funding over several years.

Of course, scientists in the US and elsewhere have a much wider choice of funding sources today than they had in the 1950s. The Pentagon itself now operates four research arms. Besides ONR, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Research Office and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (or Darpa) all support basic science.

But ONR itself remains an important player, spending around $600m a year on basic science worldwide. “We have built up an academic community that has great loyalty to the navy,” says Michael Kassner, ONR research director. “We want to keep that legacy and make our basic research portfolio even more basic.”

His boss, Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, chief of naval research, makes a similar point when I visit him in ONR headquarters – a disappointingly nondescript office block in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC.

“Basic long-term research is the hardest portion of my budget to defend,” says Carr, “but we regard a broad-based programme of fundamental science as essential to maintain the technological superiority of our naval forces. It is where we find the way through doors that we didn’t even know existed.”

Of course, the world in general, not just the navy, gains from such discoveries. Without ONR’s pioneering research into the electronic properties of gallium arsenide, mobile phones would probably still be a futuristic fantasy. Without its research into laser cooling of atoms, the ultra-precise timekeeping required for satellite navigation would not yet have been developed.

The US navy benefits by building up a global network of contacts at the top of their fields. Naval staff can also identify interesting innovations that might be useful for their own, more applied work in naval and weapons development.

Compared with the US navy’s total spending of $180bn a year, the commitment of $600m to basic research is a small price to pay for a good seat at the top table of world science.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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