Table of Contents Previous Next

The pace of technological developments that are spawned in our research universities is accelerating rapidly. More major inventions and new products have been introduced in the 20th century than in all prior recorded history. In retrospect, major shifts in the structure of human society took thousands of years. By contrast, the information age is transforming our world in the space of just a few decades, and new technologies are radically changing the way we live.

The UW has contributed significantly to that transformation. But as our activities grow, it becomes more and more difficult to remember the full range of innovations that our faculty, students, and staff have contributed to society. It seems only fitting for the UW to create a permanent and comprehensive record that showcases the most salient achievements. Many of those have already faded from popular memory, and as time passes, even those that spring immediately to mind today may not be as readily recalled a generation from now.

Whatever the product of research--airplanes, pharmaceuticals, or software--innovation drives the development of our economy in both traditional fields of manufacturing and in the newer service industries. In the information age, innovations are increasingly the result of research done in the nation's university laboratories. The genius of the U.S. higher education system--which combines instruction and research--is generally acknowledged worldwide as an unparalleled success. But ominous storm clouds are spilling over the horizon, threatening the vitality of this enterprise. It may be timely, therefore, to remind ourselves of the many dimensions of this remarkable resource. It would be tragic if we failed to ensure the continuing vitality of the academic research enterprise because we took its benefits for granted and became complacent about its value. Just as farmers never eat their seed corn, we must not foolishly damage the graduate research and teaching programs that provide the foundation for future innovation and economic growth.

Education and research are not luxuries that can be postponed to a more convenient time. To be sure, the investment is substantial, but of the current $70 billion of federally-funded R&D, only about 15 percent goes to support graduate education and research in our universities (and in turn contributes directly to the education of undergraduates). Although we refer to this enterprise as "research" at universities, research is the vehicle by which we educate the next generation of scientists, physicians, engineers, social workers, and teachers.

Graduate education, by its very nature, is an apprenticeship in the art of discovery. Research is not carried out for its own sake in the university; it is an integral part of education. However, without federal funds to support graduate education and research, most universities could not afford to have graduate and professional programs in science and technology. But such graduates are an essential part of the workforce in a technological society.

Although an educated workforce is one obvious benefit from an investment made in our university, there is much more. In the process of educating students, universities and colleges produce an enormously valuable by-product: new knowledge.

We don't have to look far from home to see how this knowledge has made our lives better. Readers may be surprised to find that many familiar technologies we take for granted today have their origins in UW work. Kidney dialysis; ultrasound; treadmill heart tests; bone marrow transplantation techniques; the Puget Sound convergence zone on our nightly television weather forecasts; the region's oyster and mussel aquaculture industries--these are but a few examples. And they may discover new things about the UW and about science they never knew before, such as how the near-extinct languages of native peoples in the Pacific Northwest were recorded and preserved for posterity in the 1920s and 1930s; how UW faculty and students helped clean up Lake Washington and save it from devastating pollution problems in the 1950s and 60s; how UW researchers helped to save the Alaska salmon fishery; and how UW researchers captured a single electron in a trap and developed techniques to probe its deepest secrets. All these advances have been pioneered by research activities at the UW, largely through the work of students engaged in their graduate apprenticeships.

Countless other advances are more difficult to characterize. Many of them are so fundamental that their true impact is not realized until many years later. A good example is provided by the work of the recent Nobel prize winners Drs. Fischer and Krebs. Their pioneering work on selected proteins involved in cellular communications was started 40 years ago. Their systematic studies gradually shed more and more light on the ways in which cells talk to each other and control the myriad processes that go on in our bodies. Because of their trailblazing studies, other investigators today can begin to understand such fundamental processes as tumor growth and transplant rejection.

There is no substitute for the fundamental discoveries that initiate the cycle that leads to more detailed understanding, and eventually to applications that benefit the public. The process is sometimes untidy and often unpredictable; research results cannot be programmed in advance. Research will always be a high-risk adventure, not in terms of whether we will learn anything, but in terms of what we will learn.

Both state and federal funding are key ingredients in this equation. Higher education and research require enough state and federal support to provide the faculty, facilities, and equipment to sustain a first-rate educational program. If either state or federal funding suffers significant declines, the graduate education and research enterprise will suffer, and our nation's capacity to compete effectively in the global economy will be compromised. It is imperative that in the current debates about budget reductions, we all remain mindful of the crucial but sometimes overlooked role that our educational institutions and fundamental research programs play in keeping us just a step ahead of the competition. The worst mistake we could make is to fail to recognize the ingredients of our past success and fall behind at a critical moment in history.

As the research vignettes in this volume attest, the faculty at the UW, and their student and staff co-workers, have accomplished much in their diverse fields of endeavor. We intend this first volume, which focuses on areas of science and technology, and the subsequent volume, which will highlight achievements in the arts, humanities, law, education, and similar fields, to help remind ourselves and to inform the public--upon whose understanding and generosity we depend for support--of just some of the many contributions made by the UW in the course of its history.

These vignettes provide a rare glimpse of how research is actually carried out in practice: with the involvement of graduate students and undergraduate students; often in interdisciplinary teams; sometimes taking twists and turns and ending up in different places than originally intended; with the help of a little serendipity; often against formidable odds; and as a result of a long-term commitment and sustained investment.

Our goals are to showcase the benefits that the UW brings to the public, to highlight significant developments that previously may have escaped notice or faded from memory, and to give a broader, historical perspective to UW accomplishments. We have struggled with the choice of items to include. We certainly recognize that the list does not include everything that might deserve to be mentioned. We have tried to select those items that would be recognized by any independent observer as the truly outstanding advances of importance either to the institution, to the State or to the nation, or to science itself.

Technical significance has been an overriding criterion in the selection of topics, but we recognized that other factors should be given significant weight. Some advances have important societal benefits; others have major economic impact; some involve other elements such as the human interest factor that make compelling stories. The result is a compilation that is intended to have broad appeal in addition to having high technical merit.

We offer this collection with the hope that our readers will be reminded of the dedicated students, faculty, and staff who have exercised their creativity to bring new discoveries and insights to the public.

Alvin L. Kwiram
Vice Provost for Research

Table of Contents Previous Next