Nobel laureate credits Office of Naval Research for supporting basic research

December 17, 2013

ARLINGTON, Va.--As the 2013 Nobel laureates accepted their awards Dec. 10, one carried with him the shared vision and support of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), which sponsored his research when few in the scientific community embraced his computational theories.

Dr. Arieh Warshel, distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry "for the development of multi-scale models for complex chemical systems."

Warshel's work in quantum and molecular mechanics, first funded by the ONR in the 1980s, has paved the way for advanced computer modeling programs and methods widely used today.

Defense applications for his research include protecting and decontaminating from chemical agents, improving personnel protection with bio-inspired materials, and optimizing power generation from microbial and bio-fuel cells.

"ONR support helped me to establish the validity of my methods," he said, adding that "support for basic research is of tremendous value."

Also counted among the benefits of Warshel's studies are improved drug delivery for vaccines and therapeutic agents, and bolstered drug potency with reduced side effects - both of which offer tremendous potential for the medical community at large.

"Sponsoring Dr. Warshel's work is a sterling example of what ONR does best - find and fund the most promising scientific research," said ONR Executive Director Walter Jones. "Although advantages may not be immediate, through modest investments, we can see tremendous solutions being brought to bear for the Navy and for the nation."

Jones pointed to unmanned platforms and laser weapons systems as examples of modern-day technologies that required decades of basic and applied research to come to fruition.

Dr. Michael Marron, ONR's former lead scientist for theoretical experimental biology (now retired), saw potential in Warshel's work and encouraged him to submit an initial research proposal. It was accepted, beginning ONR's long-standing relationship with the Nobel laureate.

"At the time we funded him, nobody really trusted the computational approach because it was not accurate enough," Marron said, offering that more time-consuming and expensive lab methods were preferred for studying enzymes at the time.

"Today, because of developments by him and others, one can do computationally what cannot be done in the lab," Marron said. "Today, we trust the computation to be almost the quality of experiments and that just wasn't the case when we were funding him."

Warshel shares the award with Michael Levitt, of Stanford University, and Martin Karplus, of the Université de Strasbourg, France, and Harvard University. They join more than 160 Nobel laureates in the study of chemistry since the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences began the award in 1901.

In addition to a medal and diploma, each awardee receives a $1.2 million monetary prize.
ONR provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps' technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 70 countries, 1,035 institutions of higher learning and 914 industry partners. ONR employs approximately 1,400 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel, with additional employees at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.

By Tammy White, Office of Naval Research

Office of Naval Research

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