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Congressmen take hands-on tour of research projects
University officials decided not to take any chances when they learned that four members of the powerful House Committee on Science were coming to campus.
Even though Stanford's federally funded research facilities recently emerged from the House Appropriations Committee relatively unscathed, staff members from the university's government affairs office sought advice from a science committee aide on how to put together the most effective tour for the delegation.
The answer from Washington was to prepare fewer charts and offer more hands-on demonstrations that point out tangible connections between scientific activities and the nation's economy.
The congressional group, led by Chairman Robert Walker (R-Penn.), came to campus Thursday, Aug. 10, as part of a 10-day trip to science facilities in Texas, California and Alaska to review projects under its purview. The delegation group, which also included Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and James Barcia (D-Mich.) plus 18 staff members, spouses and Navy escorts, stopped first at the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility at the Center for Integrated Systems, then moved on to the Gravity Probe-B project and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center during their four-hour visit.
At each stop, the delegation was treated to a mixture of brief talks, demonstrations and plenty of opportunities to chat with faculty members and graduate and undergraduate student researchers.
Committee members, for example, rolled the world's most perfectly round spheres in the palms of their hands. They also watched their own movements tracked accurately on a computer screen by an automatic control system that can land commercial aircraft "blind" in bad weather conditions.
"The chairman seemed quite taken with some of the science, which I thought was really great," said Provost Condoleezza Rice, who accompanied the delegation on the tour. Exposing lawmakers to science from the perspective of the people working at the laboratory bench is a particularly effective method to convey what science is all about, she said.
"It's important we provide more opportunities like this to expose members of Congress to scientific research. I know budgetary times are tough and there's not enough money for all kinds of good things, but science is so critical to the country's progress," Rice said.
Walker, a veteran of 18 years in the House, has been a consistent supporter of basic science (research that isn't being targeted toward developing a specific product for commercialization). His leadership has provided good news for university researchers. But at a time when federal agencies across the board are facing steep budget cuts, research funding looks ripe for the chopping block.
Since the Republican takeover of the House, the science committee has played a key role in shaping the GOP's position on science funding. Through its four subcommittees, members have a direct say over 61 percent of the federal research money that comes to Stanford, or about $288 million of the $473 million the university received in 1994. (In addition, Stanford received $40.7 million in military funding and $141.9 million from Health and Human Services.)
Not all congressional representatives on the tour were singing the praises of university research, however. Differences between Chairman Walker and Rohrabacher, who chairs the energy and environment subcommittee, mirror a fundamental split within the Republican Party on science funding. Supporters of scientific research contend that it is essential for America's economic prosperity and global competitiveness. Republican budget cutters argue that eliminating the federal deficit should top Congress' agenda, and that science and technology must shoulder their share of the cuts.
"Since the beginning of our time as a nation, we have always had those people who would like to do those things that look necessary now and not invest in the future. In my view that is not something that advances our nation or our culture," Walker said during a press conference at the end of the tour.
"The next century will be very, very much dominated by those people who have developed new knowledge bases. That's what this is all about. Developing the new knowledge bases that our children and grandchildren will need," the congressman from Pennsylvania said.
Rohrabacher followed the chairman to the podium and delivered a different message.
"Whatever decisions we make have to be within the context that we do not have unlimited resources," he said. "We're going to balance the budget because we know that our future generations [will] have to pay, so much that they themselves can't be engaged in experimentation because all of the money would have been used by this generation."
The debate over how best to prioritize science funding for the future has university researchers on edge. "We're all concerned about whether our budgets are going to be cut," said Burton Richter, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, at the press conference after the congressional delegation had departed.
"Our monies are tight and there are lots of people scrambling for pieces of an ever shrinking budget pie. We do basic science. We're very good. We support a lot of scientists in the United States. So what can we say? Our hearts are pure. Our cause is just and we hope to have Congress continue our funding."
The House appropriation bills that were approved during the summer essentially call for level funding for basic science. The Senate's verdict has yet to come in. When it does, the funding levels approved by both the House and the Senate are up for negotiation. The committee members who visited here last week will share their impressions with other congressional lawmakers when they return to Washington after the summer recess.
One indication of the importance placed on the delegation's visit was the mobilization of so many top university officials to greet them. President Gerhard Casper and a number of key university administrators and scientists dined privately with the group earlier in the week. In addition, Charles Kruger, dean of research, joined Provost Rice in accompanying the delegation on the Thursday tour.
The first stop on the tour, at the Center for Integrated Systems, was intended to showcase Stanford as an institution that has spurred technological advances that are creating economic growth and new jobs.
Dean of Engineering James Gibbons gave a 15-minute talk on the dynamic relationship that exists between Stanford and Silicon Valley. In 1988, Gibbons said, the revenues from about 100 Stanford "spin-outs" - companies started in whole or in part by Stanford students or faculty - totaled $25 billion, more than 60 percent of overall Silicon Valley revenues of $40 billion. In 1994, the revenues of Stanford spin-outs had grown to $53 billion out of total valley revenues of $85 billion. In addition, Gibbons estimates that these spin-outs created about 250,000 new jobs between 1960 and 1990, a 9.2 percent annual growth rate.
"At Stanford, we are concerned with pushing out the basic frontiers. Then our students carry this knowledge into industries that need this cutting-edge knowledge," Gibbons said.
Congressman Walker asked Gibbons whether changes in telecommunications would affect Stanford's relationship with Silicon Valley. After all, Walker pointed out, "information that has been locally held will now be available world wide." That may be the case, Gibbons acknowledged, but he added that information by itself won't give people the critical edge they need to be successful in this fast-paced industry. Those who have actually worked on cutting- edge technological problems have an inherent advantage over those who have just read about them, he said.
In addition to the big picture painted by the dean, the members of congress talked to researchers at the nanofabrication facility who are pushing capabilities for making the ultra-small. Graduate student Kenneth Honer described his work (done with Gregory Kovacs, associate professor of electrical engineering) on putting microscopic accelerometers on a tiny chip. The team successfully has made these mechanical devices, which measure acceleration, on the same chip that contains the electronic circuitry that controls them. Potential applications include use with pacemakers and as triggering devices for automobile airbags.
"All that is on that chip? That's amazing," said Congressman Bartlett as he carefully balanced the chip between his thumb and forefinger.
Future generations of chips may be substantially smaller. Graduate student Hyongsok Tom Soh described work done with Calvin Quate, professor of applied physics, to etch computer chips using atomic force microscope (AFM) technology. AFMs can produce images of surfaces with atomic level detail by scanning them with diamond tips. By applying slightly more pressure, the microscopes can be used to etch much narrower lines on chip surfaces than is possible with current techniques. The researchers in Quate's laboratory are trying to make large arrays of these tips to speed the time it takes them to etch complex patterns.
"It's a little awe-inspiring to know we're meeting the best and the brightest," Congressman Rohrabacher told Gibbons as they moved next door to the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory for a briefing on the Gravity Probe B (GP-B) project. He said he was impressed with Gibbons' presentation but thought it left out two major points that are essential for a represetatives to know: "How much does this cost and who pays for it? . . . We're in the business of directing taxpayers money. That's our job."
At the Gravity Probe B project, the delegation was greeted with a simple demonstration. Francis Everitt, who heads GP- B, stirred up water in a large beaker until it formed a funnel-shaped swirl. Everitt pointed out that, despite the fact that physicists have been thinking about this effect for 300 years, they cannot explain why the surface of swirling water forms the concave shape that it does. "Gravity Probe B may give us an answer to this question," he said, adding that such a discovery would be incorporated into high school text books around the world.
"We sometimes ask ourselves the question 'What does an esoteric fundamental physics experiment mean to the man on the street?' I hope you won't think that I am wrong when I say we should not underestimate the intellectual curiosity of the man or woman on the street. I'd like to leave you with the point that even on such a simple thing as that, there are mysteries in science that we do not understand," Everitt said.
In the scientific quest for answers, Everitt said that new technologies are developed that often lead to spinoffs with incredible paybacks to society that never were imagined at the start of a project. More importantly, he added, the quest presents an intellectually stimulating challenge for the next generation of researchers.
For the past three decades, GP-B has been designing a method that will provide a fundamental new test of Einstein's general theory of relativity that weaves together space, time and gravity. It will do this by building the world's most perfect gyroscopes and putting them in a perfect orbit.
The gyroscopes will be placed in orbit shielded from extraneous magnetic fields, cooled to 2 degrees above absolute zero, and aimed at a guide star. If Einstein is right, the gyroscopes will not remain pointed at the star. But the annual deflection of the gyroscopes that general relativity predicts is extremeley small, equivalent to the angle formed between two sides of a human hair viewed from 100 miles away. So the satellite and all its components have to be designed with unprecedented precision.
Brad Parkinson, Gravity Probe B project manager, said that the project's most difficult technical problems all have been solved and tested, and the project is currently 20 months ahead of its official schedule set by NASA. As a result, they hope to launch the satellite in 1999.
Prompted by a question from Walker, Parkinson discussed the unique way in which the experiment is being managed. Stanford is the project manager, the first university to be given charge of such a large NASA program. After competitive bidding, Lockheed was chosen as the partner. Stanford, Lockheed and NASA then formed a streamlined management team that has been working very well, Parkinson said. "This approach has allowed us to react to problems very quickly, and we haven't been over-managed by NASA," he said.
One of the stops on the tour of the Gravity Probe B facility included a conversation with Clark Cohen, a former graduate student who is now an engineering research associate with the program. Cohen described how a method developed to track the GP-B satellite's position using the Global Positioning System led to the development of an automatic control system capable of landing commercial aircraft with extreme accuracy in bad weather conditions.
"Could this revolutionize private aviation? Couldn't you design private aircraft so all the pilot had to do to land was push a button?" Walker asked, as members of the delegation took turns moving a handheld GPS while watching a computer display that showed how accurately their movements were being tracked.
Designing the system to land a plane at the touch of a button could be done, Cohen confirmed.
At another point on the GP-B tour, graduate student Matthew Rabinowitz explained what he claimed will be the next major spinoff from the project: The use of a neural network to reduce the noise in the signal from the device used to measure the spin of the gyros. Reducing such non-linear effects is a widespread problem in electronics, from home stereos to scientific instrumentation. The standard method for dealing with this is to provide what is called negative feedback. Although negative feedback would have been sufficient to reach the mission requirements, use of the neural network will substantially exceed specifications. To get this advantage, "you have to train the neural network to take out the nolinear effects. It's something like training a small child," Rabinowitz said.
"So this could lead to better boom boxes," Walker quipped.
At the end of the session, Walker told Everitt that, after having talked about the project for the last year, he was "glad to finally see it in person." David Clement, the committee's chief of staff, said that "Gravity Probe B is a very important experiment. I wouldn't be surprised if it led to at least one Nobel Prize. The way in which it is managed may also be a valuable model for how to do research in the future."
Gravity Probe B narrowly escaped the budget ax last month. Although it had been cut entirely from some early House bills a few weeks ago, it received full funding of $51.5 million for next year in the final House appropriations bill, plus some strong wording to the effect that members want to see the project fully supported. Rohrabacher, however, express ambivalence about the project during last week's visit.
"They have been talking about this [question regarding the shape that water takes when it's swirled in a glass] for hundreds of years," Rohrabacher told a Navy escort while touring the facility. "What will making that decision now do for mankind? And is it worth the price?"
The escort pointed out that the research isn't entirely esoteric. The GP-B project has spurred advances in technology, such as the automatic control system for landing airplanes, which have important implications for society. "But we're using millions of dollars for this, "Rohrabacher said. "Whether we are talking about [the discovery] as a result or as a spinoff is the question we have to ask ourselves. It may well have been achieved if we had focused on doing just that.
"Now that the Cold War is over, we have to make sure this is going to have some benefit other than a missile that can be directed to a target," he told a reporter as the group was ushered to a bus, headed to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).
SLAC and SSRL
The first stop at SLAC was the visitors' gallery at the two-mile linear accelerator, or LINAC. Using a laser pointer, SLAC director Richter discussed the different facilities at SLAC shown on an aerial map, including the sites where the discoveries were made that led to Richard Taylor's and his own Nobel prizes.
Richter described the worldwide, collaborative research effort that SLAC has been organizing to develop the next-generation linear collider, which he described as the equivalent of two LINACs mounted end to end and shooting at each other.
"There are two different types of particle accelerators: Electron beams, like we have here, and proton beams. Each gives different insights into the basic nature of matter. The electron machines tend to tell us about basic structure, while the proton beam machines tend to tell us about basic forces," Richter explained.
Using posters supplied by Varian, Richter also took the opportunity to point out that the klystron technology that Stanford scientists invented in 1937 and used to build the linear accelerator also had some important spin-offs. It resulted in the founding of Varian Associates, one of Silicon Valley's founding companies. In the 1950s Stanford researchers used the technology to produce the first large accelerator for cancer treatment in the Western Hemisphere. As a result, retinoblastoma, Hodgkin's disease and several other fatal forms of cancer now are treatable, and Varian produces commercial accelerators that are used for this purpose in hospitals around the world.
The group's final stop was the Collider Hall. There, dwarfed by the 6,000 ton, 25-foot-high detectors that measure the results of high energy experiments, the delegation continued their discussion with the Nobel laureate.
Rohrabacher, pointing out that people have managed to function without such knowledge in the past, questioned the value of continuing research of this sort.
Richter responded with an anecdote from the 1800s. Michael Faraday, who performed pioneering studies on the phenomenon of electricity, was visited by Mr. Gladstone, a member of the British Exchequer, or treasury department. Mr. Gladstone asked the scientist the value of his studies. Faraday answered, "Sir, I do not know, but some day you will tax it."
"Those of us who are doing this kind of basic research don't know what it's value will be. But we do believe that the old saw - knowledge is power - is true, and that, the more we know the greater our control will be," Richter said.
"Doesn't this just put you in a position of knowing there are other things that you don't know?" Rohrabacher asked.
"There is no final answer. Science is an ever moving frontier," Richter replied.
Arthur Bienenstock, the director of SLAC's Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, (SSRL) next provided the delegation with a brief description of his domain. SSRL basically uses a byproduct of the particle accelerator, high intensity x-rays, for a broad range of scientific investigations, ranging from the determination of the structure of biologically important molecules, to measuring the chemical make-up of toxic wastes and the detection of metallic impurities on silicon wafers.
In one study of osteoporosis, for example, a scientist from UC-San Francisco used SSRL to examine the effects of a common treatment of this bone-wasting disease in rats. She found that the disease causes the breakdown in the network of connections at the center of the bone that give it much of its strength, and that the treatment does add bone mass, but does so by thickening the remaining connections, not by replacing those that are missing. "This has had a big effect on me as a concerned husband. I have started urging my wife to take preventive measures and not to count on the possibility of treatment," Bienenstock told the delegation.
The metallic impurity study was initiated by ex-Stanford students working at IBM and Intel. The size of features on integrated circuits has become so small that clusters of metal atoms on the surface of a chip can interfere with their operation. To move to even smaller sizes, semiconductor manufacturers must develop processes that keep the level of these impurities very low. Unfortunately, the level they need is too small to be measured using conventional techniques. As a result, researchers so far have been stymied in evaluating the success of their efforts to reduce these contaminants. The researchers have managed recently to use synchrotron radiation to measure metal particles at one-twentieth the level possible using other methods.
"That will take them to about 1998. By then they think they will be able to achieve the factor of 100 improvement that is their ultimate goal," Bienenstock said.
Bienenstock concluded his presentation by describing SSRL's goal of building a new kind of synchrotron radiation source over the next five years. This would be 1,000 times brighter than any of the other synchrotron sources in the United States today.
At the end of the tour, Walker presided over a press conference. He said that "the accelerator is a very impressive piece of engineering. It illustrates why conducting basic science can be very expensive, but also involves a lot of engineering that ends up in applications so that the nation and society is the winner. Personally, I think that our investment in science has helped make us the economic power that we are today."
He said that the science committee had increased funding for basic science above the level in President Bill Clinton's budget and that the House appropriation bills followed the priorities set by the committee. The Senate appropriation bills are "reasonably close" in this regard and the differences are negotiable, he said.
"You need to understand that we are very serious about setting priorities. Programs must justify their existence. These priorities are set not by politics, but by scientific peer review, so the scientific community itself must become more selective," he said.
After the congressional delegation's departure for lunch with CEOs from major Silicon Valley companies, Richter and Charles Kruger answered questions.
A major point Richter said he had wanted to get across to the visitors was the fact that SLAC is not just a Stanford facility, but, with 1,800 visiting scientists annually, a resource for the national science community. The House appropriations bill included a full budget for SLAC, but the Senate bill is a different matter, Richter said. The Senate appropriations bill included $20 million less for high energy research than the House bill.
Kruger said he was pleased that the committee members had a chance to chat with graduate students and undergraduates involved in various research programs.
"The research contributes immensely to their education. They contribute immensely to the research. The research results of course are one of the more important things that a university like Stanford does. But even more important are the people we educate."
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