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Foundation funding means good news for basic science

Courtesy of Lindsay France and Kyle Shen Cornell, ARPES System
July 30, 2013

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced good news for science today: more than $90 million for basic research, specifically in the field of condensed matter physics. The Moore Foundation’s new Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) initiative will focus this budget over a five-year period to explore the exotic and unexpected properties of a broad class of systems termed quantum materials.   

At a time when many scientific organizations are challenged by shrinking budgets, EPiQS champions the importance of basic science. Scientific research shapes the way we live, the way we see the world and the way we interact with it. The leaps in knowledge that it engenders enrich our lives intellectually, and they can have practical, and often unanticipated, applications. Much of the technology we depend on, from our cell phones to MRIs, is based on discoveries made well before their applications were conceived.  

“At Moore we have a passion and a drive to turn bold thinking into new discoveries,” explained Science Chief Program Officer Vicki Chandler. “With a belief in the inherent value of basic research, we seek opportunities to promote exploration at the very frontiers of science, to ask and answer new questions and propel the natural sciences forward.” 

“In condensed matter physics, quantum materials—the materials and engineered structures in which interactions between the constituent particles show strong quantum-mechanical effects—present largely uncharted ground for study and immense opportunity for discovery,” said program director Cyndi Atherton, who will be leading the new initiative. 

Within quantum materials, the intricate ways in which large assemblies of electrons synchronize their motion produce fascinating emergent phenomena, such as high-temperature superconductivity and the occurrence of “particles” with fractional charge. These phenomena have often eluded prediction, although properties of the individual particles that constitute these materials are well understood. In the same way, knowing the properties of a water molecule or a sand particle doesn’t allow for predictions about the ripples that emanate from a drop of water, or the dunes that arise from aggregated pieces of sand.   

Now, with recent innovations in nanotechnology and quantum control of matter–and advances in theory–fresh opportunities have arisen for examining emergent properties of quantum materials in new ways, enabling scientists to ask more profound questions and paving the way to potentially world-changing technological applications. But at the same time, the reorienting of large industrial research labs that had provided top scientists with the resources and freedom to pursue discovery-driven research has left a large funding gap. The Moore Foundation is targeting its funding with an integrated research program that will include experiment, materials synthesis and theory.     

“It’s great news for science,” said Steve McCormick, Moore Foundation president. “At a time when basic research needs support from the philanthropic community more than ever, this new research initiative will yield the kind of high-impact discoveries that may ultimately result in applications with far-reaching societal benefits and impact on our daily lives that we can’t even imagine today.” 

EPiQS seeks to advance our understanding of complex quantum systems and fuel new discoveries through conceptual breakthroughs and innovations. Specifically, the initiative will support: 

  • Top experimentalists and centers for theory to enable current and emerging leaders in experiment and theory to maximize their creativity 
  • Materials synthesis to bolster the artistry of creating new or better quantum materials while improving career paths for materials synthesis scientists 
  • Instrumentation acquisition and development to advance laboratory capabilities at leading institutions 
  • High-risk projects to enable timely responses to new discoveries and rapid development of new concepts 
  • Community building activities that create and sustain a vibrant research network to promote exchange of ideas and materials. 

“New fascinating phenomena have emerged from complex electronic materials every few years, and some of them become valuable technologically,” said Marc Kastner, a science advisory board member for the Moore Foundation and Donner Professor of Science and Dean of the School of Science at MIT. “However, they come from very long-range basic research, which is increasingly difficult for industry or even government agencies to support adequately. It is wonderful that the foundation has the vision to step in to make a difference.”  

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation believes in bold ideas that create enduring impact in the areas of science, environmental conservation and patient care. Intel co-founder Gordon and his wife Betty established the foundation to create positive change around the world and at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Science looks for opportunities to transform–or even create–entire fields by investing in early-stage research, emerging fields and top research scientists. Our environmental conservation efforts promote sustainability, protect critical ecological systems and align conservation needs with human development. Patient care focuses on eliminating preventable harms and unnecessary healthcare costs through meaningful engagement of patients and their families in a supportive, redesigned healthcare system. Visit us at Moore.org or follow @MooreScientific.