Inside the W.M. Keck Foundation's Risky but Promising Science Research

A team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst spend their days thinking about the curious subject of ultra-thin films. Arcane as the topic may be, the W.M. Keck Foundation sees enough promise that it is backing the scientists' work with a three-year, $1 million grant. (See W.M. Keck Foundation: Grants for Science Research).

"Imagine throwing a crumpled ball at a wall," says Narayanan Menon, who conducts the research along with Benny Davidovitch, Christopher Santangelo, and Thomas Russell. The team is confident that with enough work, they can get the ball to attach itself to the wall and cover it in a film that is 10,000 times thinner than paper.

"We have preliminary experiments that indicate the feasibility of this approach, but we need many further experiments and theoretical work to understand and control how such a film spontaneously and explosively unfurls when it is placed between two liquids."

If it sounds like a risky project, that's exactly what attracted the Keck Foundation to the Massachusetts team. The foundation's goal is to find promising science that evades the notice of other programs supporting basic research. The foundation also likes the program's multidisciplinary approach — the physicist Menon runs a lab that specializes in understanding soft materials, Davidovitch and Santangelo are theorists, and Russell is a polymer scientist.

It could also yield important scientific knowledge and applications if successful. The team suggests that the ultrathin films could be used to put a stop to oil spills or shore up a leaky boat.

Projects like these will continue to take priority at the Keck Foundation's Medical Research Program and Science and Engineering Research Program. The foundation recently put together a committee of experts to evaluate its past grant-making and provide guidance on its activity in the future. (Read W.M. Keck director of programs, Maria Pellegrini's IP profile).

The conclusion: Keep looking for risky but promising projects that have the potential to transform scientific knowledge. Look at new or smaller institutions that might get ignored by the big dogs like the National Science Foundation. And cultivate a diverse group of scientists — old and young, male and female, American and international.

The Keck Foundation's grants are competitive, but they are worth the effort for those with a worthy project. The grants range usually range from $500,000 to as much as $5 million. In 2011, the Science and Technology Research Program gave out a total of $12.5 million while the Medical Research Program disbursed another $9.5 million. For a researcher with a bright but undeveloped idea, the Keck Foundation’s $1 billion endowment is a promising source of support.