Rewarding science's unsung heroes: those who put theory into practice

Last week, more than 300 scientists gathered in Chicago, donned tuxedos and black ties, and celebrated one anothers' achievements. The event attracted little media attention. Nobel Prizes would not be won here, for those awards are handed out for achievements in basic science. These were applied scientists - the generally unsung men and women who take scientific theories and bring the results to the consumer.

At a dinner held here recently in the Museum of Science and Industry, Industrial Research & Development magazine handed out its annual awards for the 100 most significant and innovative scientific and technological products.

Many of the top innovations of 1982 didn't fall within the realm of the average consumer: There was the mold cooling analysis program, the mass selective detector for gas chromatography, and a machine that simulated the human chewing system. But a few, such as the Kodak disc system for cameras, have won wider attention.

The I-R 100 awards, as they are called, provide glimpses of the cutting edge of current applied-science research, says Robert R. Jones, editor of Industrial Research & Development magazine.

For example, this year was the first time since the early 1970s that there were no entries for such alternive-energy devices as solar collectors, solar cells, heliostats, or windmills. Rather, the competition judges found more emphasis on computers, software, solid-state circuitry, and advanced plastics and composites.

Also, more money and time were needed to develop these products than in years past. The average development time for the 1983 winners was 48 months, compared with 34 months in 1982 and 37 in 1981. And it cost more than $1.1 billion to develop 93 of the products for which information was available, compared with $ 83 million in 1982 and $134 million the year before that.

It's too early to tell whether increased development time and costs are trends, Mr. Jones says. ''We've seen it swing both ways. But (generally) I think we're putting in more time and money now.''

The magazine's 1983 ''Scientist of the Year'' award also went to a scientist whose role is generally unrecognized. James N. Shoolery, an applications chemist with Varian Associates in Palo Alto, Calif., did not discover nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) - but he has done much to promote the process, which has made a great impact on chemistry. NMR is essentially a method for analyzing molecular structures and determining the nature of unknown substances.

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