By Cynthia Sagers, Vice President for Research
There is a sweet spot for science, those examples of discoveries inspired by the need to solve practical problems. In human health, agriculture, technology and other fields, researchers have gone back to basics to relieve suffering and advance human well-being. Donald Stokes described these endeavors in his book, Pasteur’s Quadrant.
Examples of such work abound at Oregon State. Crops from wheat and potatoes to hazelnuts, blueberries and grass seed power the state’s exports and provide a lifeline for rural communities. Cross-laminated timber panels — first made in the United States for building purposes at the D.R. Johnson Lumber Company in Riddle — stem from a partnership between the firm and OSU.
Last fall, professor Kaichang Li received a national award at the Library of Congress for creating a widely used soy-based adhesive for the plywood industry. The Golden Goose Award originated with a congressman from Tennessee and counts Oregon Representative Suzanne Bonamici among its supporters.
Also last fall, Fortune magazine named 1984 OSU graduate Jen-Hsun Huang its 2017 Businessperson of the Year. The CEO of Nvidia led the development of the company’s powerful computer chips for video processing purposes. Nvidia has turned its attention to the artificial intelligence industry, supporting the growth of robotics, self-driving vehicles and other autonomous systems. The company has an estimated market value of $125 billion.
More than 150 years ago, the politicians who created the land grant university system understood the power of research that connects curiosity and invention to social problems. Higher education at that time was generally reserved for the elite. Land grant schools were created to empower people from modest backgrounds with broad-based training in the agricultural, mechanical and liberal arts as well as the military sciences. The idea has paid off in spades.
For proof, look no further than the track record of the Oregon State University Advantage program: 70 companies launched, 107 jobs created, $4.6 million in revenues and another $2.3 million in equity investment. Among the companies formed are Beet (solar cells), Inpria (semiconductors), Valliscor (chemical manufacturing) and eChemion (batteries). They may not be household names, but they employ our neighbors and connect Oregon with what economists call the “traded sector,” businesses that generate products for an international marketplace.
If you look under the hood of this economic engine, you’ll discover what makes it run: curiosity, creative inquiry, the courage to follow clues wherever they lead and the ability to translate discoveries into solutions for real problems. Human ingenuity is a powerful force, but it needs careful tending and support.
Louis Pasteur’s discoveries in microbiology saved millions of lives. He leveraged fundamental knowledge to find cures for rabies and other diseases. Likewise, by delving into the chemical structure of soy proteins, Kaichang Li created a nontoxic adhesive as tough as the threads that anchor mussels to wet rocks in a pounding surf.
“To know how to wonder and question is the first step of the mind toward discovery,” said Pasteur. Solving daunting problems — climate change, species extinction, infectious disease, food security — requires no less than a commitment to impact in the light of basic science.