At this time of great change in the world, it is appropriate to assess the value of the nation's investment in basic science research and education. Today it is all the more important that science and the technology it produces contribute to solving society's problems and that the role of science and technology be understood. The challenge in developing a national science research and education strategy is to select and enhance the areas of basic research that constitute the wisest investment of the nation's resources for long-term as well as immediate benefits.
This report describes the results of a study commissioned by the National Research Council to assess the field of atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) science "not only in the context of the intellectual challenges of AMO science, but also in the context of national needs."
AMO science focuses on the properties of the common building blocks of the world around us—namely, atoms, molecules, and light—and on phenomena that occur in the ranges of temperature and energy that are characteristic of daily human activities. It is both an intellectually stimulating basic science and a powerful "enabling" science that supports many other important areas of science and technology. It is a key component of several of the federal strategic Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET) initiatives. The enabling aspect of AMO science derives from efforts to control and manipulate atoms, molecules, charged particles, and light more precisely; to accurately measure and calculate their properties; and to invent new ways to generate light with specific properties.
Federal funding of grants and contracts for basic research in AMO science
in the United States amounts to somewhat over $100M per year, provided primarily by the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense. If support provided by U.S. industry and through U.S. federal research and development laboratories is included, the total funding for AMO science in this country approaches $1B per year. The return on this investment is substantial. The panel estimates that AMO science is an important enabling factor in industries accounting for about 9% of the nation's GNP. Overall, the products of AMO science influence over 20% of the GNP (U.S. Industrial Outlook 1992: Business Forecasts for 350 Industries, International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1992).
Despite its impact, AMO science is a "small" science. That is, it is dominated by the work of single investigators or small groups. This mode of research has proved to be an effective vehicle for creative and innovative science and has resulted in many notable discoveries. Students who graduate with backgrounds in AMO science acquire a broad range of knowledge and skills and are valuable contributors to many areas of science and technology.
The report highlights recent advances and discoveries in AMO science. Through examples, it illustrates many areas of application, including industrial technology, manufacturing, and processing; information technology, high-performance computing, and communications; energy; global change; defense; health and medical technology; space technology; and transportation.
Three case studies—"Lasers," "Manipulating Atoms," and "Buckyballs and Carbon Nanotechnology"—are included that show different stages in the transfer of basic scientific knowledge and technologies to direct applications and marketable products. The special role of AMO-science-based measurement techniques, instrumentation, and sensors in the nation's manufacturing industries is also discussed. Funding, research infrastructure, and education and human resources are also addressed.
The report identifies a number of concerns about the future vitality of the U.S. programs in AMO science and its applications. Substantial support for the field has come from defense programs within the Department of Defense and Department of Energy. Conversion of defense research and development funding to commercial objectives could result in serious erosion in the support of AMO science. Industrial research and development laboratories, which have supported substantial AMO science research activities, are reorganizing and cutting back. Demand for PhD graduates is down in all fields, a trend that is less of a problem for AMO graduates because of their broad training and practical skills. There is also concern within the AMO science community that the United States is losing ground to other nations in many areas of AMO science.
The recommendations presented in the report include guidelines to federal agencies on general priorities. Mechanisms to help mission agencies establish specific priorities are suggested. The report further recommends that the agencies
emphasize the support of single investigators and small groups, rely on merit review for undirected as well as goal-directed basic research, and support an interagency advisory or coordinating committee to collect and disseminate information and provide guidance to government, industry, and the AMO science community.
The report is divided into two parts. Part I, "Overview," discusses the impact of the science and recent discoveries, and presents recommendations aimed at enhancing the value of the science to society. Part II, "Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Science: Today and Tomorrow," the main body of the report, amplifies and gives details of topics summarized in the overview.
The panel has arrived at three priorities for AMO science in the immediate future. First, the panel recommends a pattern of support that maintains and enhances responsiveness of AMO science to national needs by ensuring the healthy diversity of the field and the strength of the core research. Second, the panel recommends research into highly promising new technologies for the control and manipulation of atoms, molecules, charged particles, and light. Third, the panel recommends research into new and improved lasers and other advanced light sources. Specific priorities with regard to different national goals and needs—such as those related to industrial technology, manufacturing, and processing; information technology, high-performance computing, and communications; energy; global change; defense; health and medical technology; space technology; and transportation—can best be identified by agencies and advisory bodies addressing these specific goals and needs.