“Will science, during 1947, uncover new instruments to push civilization closer to the precipice of destruction?”
“How will researchers in the field of physics — who developed the atomic bomb — fare in the New Year?”
The Minneapolis Star posed these questions on New Year’s Day, 1947, as the world was still emerging from the long shadow of World War II.
Exactly 70 years later, what questions preoccupy us about the role and future of science?
First, let’s look back to 1947, a year that saw the launch of one of the most important investments ever made in science for the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota.
In direct response to the kinds of fearful, negative attitudes reflected in the newspaper’s questions, the University of Minnesota that year established a new department, combining biology and physics. Prof. Otto Schmitt and his wife, Viola, were welcomed back from a five-year assignment at a secret military research laboratory to establish and direct this new field of inquiry.
After years of developing instruments of destruction, Otto and Viola were setting a direction for “the affirmative pursuits to help mankind,” the Star reported. The article included the prediction of J.W. Buchta, head of the university’s physics department, that the most hopeful future for his science would arise from “the relationship between medicine and physics.”
Otto Schmitt would help lead the University of Minnesota to become an internationally recognized institute in research on the human body’s electrical characteristics, inventing numerous devices to measure its electromagnetic properties. Hundreds of students had the opportunity to build these instruments, and even more had the opportunity to become test subjects. The instruments varied in size from suction probes similar to those used in cardiac tests today to devices the size of small rooms. They measured everything from skin resistivity to the effects of external magnetic fields on the human mind.
I had the opportunity to experience one of Schmitt’s tests, which was conducted inside what I thought looked like a fishing shanty. I always felt I skewed the data because I could not erase the image that the fish being caught was me.
Schmitt’s thousands of experiments on electromagnetics and the body formed the scientific basis for the development of medical devices. Soon companies such as Medtronic appeared and joined in the effort.
One of the first medical devices developed stimulated the heart muscle and regulated its contractions. Since the commercialization of that first pacemaker in 1957, Minnesota’s bioscience industry — medical devices and more — has grown to include over 900 establishments supporting more than 48,000 jobs. This industry is to Minnesota what Silicon Valley is to California, and it is in no small measure the legacy of the Schmitts.
Otto and Viola Schmitt had married in 1937, just after Otto received two Ph.D.s, in physics and zoology, from Washington University in St. Louis, his hometown. Viola’s bachelor of science degree in mathematics — a particularly unusual degree for a woman to hold in those days — added a key skill to their teamwork. Otto demanded that Viola be part of any assignment he was offered.
This determination was put to a test at a secret laboratory established at the beginning of World War II. The military needed Otto for his knowledge of electronics. He refused to undertake the work unless it included Viola, who thus became the only woman to work in this secret military technology facility. Her efforts supported the development of a sensor that was credited by the scientific staff of President Franklin Roosevelt with defeating U-boats. Following the introduction of this “magnetic airborne detector,” the number of allied ships sunk by German submarines decreased significantly, opening the North Atlantic for the buildup of troops and materiel that led to the D-Day invasion.
The story remained classified for all of Otto’s and Viola’s lives.
But for 40 years Otto and Viola’s biophysics laboratory at the University of Minnesota was a living place of folklore. Otto’s energy and inquisitive mind fascinated everyone. His ability to connect ideas, technologies and even human ambitions inspired anyone needing help with a difficult problem. But it was Viola who truly embodied the focus and dedication to detail necessary for science to produce useful results. She was the ever-present laboratory manager. She recorded, often using a Polaroid camera, nearly every visitor to and experiment in the laboratory. She was meticulous in collecting data and taking measurements with precision.
Making progress in science is not easy. It requires a commitment that sometimes nonscientists take for granted. It also requires a long-term view that many in our society, including elected officials, fail to appreciate.
Otto and Viola exemplified the belief that serving the greater good through enduring achievement should be the ultimate goal for a scientist. Otto’s faculty position and support from state and federal agencies helped him achieve this. Viola set an even higher standard of sacrifice for the greater good: her university position did not provide any pay.
For more than 40 years, Viola committed to playing her pro bono role, and accepted her personal reward as being part of Otto’s success.
Otto always validated Viola’s contributions. But as in his scientific vision, he was ahead of his time in his inclusive attitude.
Returning to the Star’s 1947 questions, we can answer that, in Minnesota, science, far from pushing civilization closer to the precipice of destruction, has produced hundreds of innovations that have improved and extended the quality of many lives. In 70 years, science has come far in helping humankind, as well as in recognizing and rewarding the invaluable work of women in science.
By looking back we can connect a series of decisions that fueled a great technical and commercial success. It required, over decades, vision from the leadership of the University of Minnesota to create opportunities for individuals to explore and discover. It required dedication to the pursuit of knowledge from hundreds of faculty and student researchers. It required industry to identify needs and match them up with solutions. And above all it required taxpayers to invest in science and in university research.
Now let’s look forward. What questions should we ask today about the future of science? What attitudes might our questions betray?
Unfortunately, today’s pressing debate involving science concerns the reduction of funding for public universities. It seems society no longer asks what science can do, but when can it deliver. Today maybe this newspaper would ask questions like these:
In 2017 will university research be worth public funding?
How will the public’s opinion of science — which is losing our trust — fare in the New Year?
Today we want to run every organization as if it were a business. A return on investment must be calculated. Nothing left to chance.
But the greatest innovations have come from two quite separate activities — inventing and commercialization. Industry is well-positioned for commercialization. Market needs can be quantified. Emerging markets can be identified. Multiple investment streams can be made available.
But when it comes to invention and discovery, industry needs a foundation to work from. It needs fundamentals that define (and redefine) the boundaries of the possible. Industry can never be successful investing in products that are unobtainable in the first place.
Yet public support for science is under pressure at both the state and federal level. University administrators facing budget cuts argue they must use business practices to drive decisions. A business case looks at a short-term return. Who believes in a 10-year business plan, much less — as in the university’s biophysics investment — a 70-year risk-reward forecast? Such a thing can’t be quantified credibly. And today, since it can’t be quantified, it won’t be funded.
As a result, inside our nation’s public universities the colleges of letters and science are being set in competition against colleges of engineering. This is also heading us toward a dangerous trend for industry-academic partnerships. Universities are putting investments where they can be leveraged by outside sponsors, namely industry.
Colleges of letters and science have a long-term delivery — not by choice, but because of what it takes to validate fundamental results. Colleges of engineering deliver more quickly.
As industry-academic partnerships are used to offset public funding cuts, will we trust the motives involved? Where will the fundamental science come from that industry and engineering can later exploit? Can we address our future needs (for example, genomic medicine, mitigation of climate change, cybersecurity, the aftereffects of GMO agriculture, and the ethics of autonomous machines) without the fundamentals of letters and science?
Otto Schmitt never won a Nobel Prize. He never got rich from his 63 patents, even though one of them, for a circuit known as the Schmitt Trigger, is used in nearly every computer ever made. His passion for new ideas, his openness to publish and advertise them to the world did not launch companies, it launched entire industries.
To Minnesota it should be clear that the dedication to science and foresight at the University of Minnesota all those years ago, and the support over time from the state’s taxpayers, has delivered a tremendous success. Will we keep it going?
James Lenz is a visiting scholar with the University of Illinois Business School and a former adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.