Basic Research at AFOSR: Ensuring Our National Security & Making Our Lives Easier

By way of introduction, I am Dr. Tom Russell, the director of AFOSR.  We manage the basic research program for the United States Air Force.

What is Basic Research?
Basic research is the foundation of all scientific and engineering discovery and progress.  It is what leads to new inventions and concepts—many of which are revolutionary.  And the great thing about basic research is the mystery of it: while basic research investigators may start off trying to prove a particular theory, many times they end up going off in an entirely new direction, or their results are ultimately employed in a dramatically different way than they initially envisioned.  In my series of posts, I will discuss surprising examples of this process. But first I want to tell you why our office was established.

Where We Came From & Why Basic Research is Important
Dr. Vannevar Bush, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, was the first to formally address the issue of post-war defense research. His July 1945 report, Science, the Endless Frontier, clearly made the case for a civilian-based, and civilian controlled, research program. The leadership of the soon to be independent United States Air Force was also committed to a civilian, or extramural program, but one under their control, and followed through by establishing its own research arm in February 1948. The U.S. Army and Navy established their research organizations as well.  The Air Force, recognizing the importance of basic research, established AFOSR in 1951, dedicated specifically to mining the basic research talent in U.S. universities and industry laboratories.  Overseas offices were subsequently established to identify promising foreign research accomplishments.

How Basic Research Impacts You
One of the primary investigators whom we fund recently characterized the long term successful results of what we do as “the stealth utility of innovation.”  An example to make the point: as a laser expert, he noted that it was military basic research that funded the invention of the laser, beginning in 1951.  And he pointed out, that if all the lasers in the world stop working, the world would come to a stop as well. Lasers are at the heart of our time keeping, our transportation network (the Global Positioning System), our energy system, and in entertainment, finances and electronics applications. This singular “stealth utility,” that regulates much of our state-of-the-art technology, is the result of defense-funded basic research and is taken for granted by everyone.  It exists because AFOSR and our sister service organizations made the research possible—not only for our mutual defense but a wide variety of beneficial applications for society in general.

In future posts we will discuss the reach and application of many of these “stealthy” discoveries that not only ensure our security, but work invisibly in the background of our society, making our lives a lot easier: from lasers to computers, from nanotechnology to aerospace, from bio-inspired devices to holographic displays, and what’s in store for the future as well.

What technology could you not live without?