Science doesn’t need Universities

February 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm 3 comments

A fascinating take on the role of science in universities.  I’ve blogged previously here about the obsession with research (mostly in science) in Universities and how that twists budgets and perceptions.  This article points out that, while Universities desperately need Science, Science actually doesn’t need to be in academia to succeed.

The university needs science because some 97.5 percent of the sponsored research funding flows to science faculty members. It needs science because graduate science departments attract the largest share of international students, many of whom come with external funding. It needs science because science is its last bastion of intellectual credibility. It needs science because the most potent rationale for continuing state and federal support is that universities drive technological innovation and jobs, and this claim rests almost exclusively on the contributions of university science faculty. It needs science because science departments are a magnet for many smart undergraduate students who wouldn’t come to seek degrees in other stuff.

The university also needs science because most of the important frontiers of human knowledge are in the sciences. If the university wants to take itself seriously as an institution founded on the search for truth, it has to have a serious commitment to the sorts of truths that theoretical and empirical science aim to uncover.

Science, on the other hand, could in principle get along without the university. It would be inconvenient for a while, especially for scientists who have built their careers around academic science. But there is nothing inherent in the nature of scientific inquiry that makes it dependent on the university. Science can be pursued in other venues: in government-run facilities such as the National Laboratories; in industry-sponsored facilities such as Bell Labs once was; in private industry; in international ventures such as the International Space Station; and sometimes as a purely personal pursuit. The latter is not to be treated at all dismissively. From Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein, breakthroughs have been achieved by individuals working well outside the university establishment and with little institutional backing. Today we have science entrepreneurs such as Craig Venter and Stephen Wolfram who step out of academe to found their own institutes to pursue their inquiries.

via Could Science Leave the University? – Innovations – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alfred Thompson  |  February 2, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    At a conference on academic and industry research at Brown some years ago the head of a US research group of a Japanese company said words to the effect “we don’t need your [universities] research. We need the researchers you create though.”

    • 2. Alan Kay  |  February 2, 2011 at 3:56 pm

      I think what you say is the central point.

      When and how do young people get the real experience in doing scientific research in K-16?

      The ARPA-IPTO research used students and the projects were both in universities in and “special companies”. A good place to get experience when I was at the U of Colo in the 60s was at the National Center For Atmospheric Research.

      And OTOH where does one learn the stuff that takes too long or has too many twists and turns for “on the (research) job training”?

      I think this should be taught in universities, and I think still is in the physical sciences, but don’t think much of this kind of knowledge for computing is taught anywhere.



  • 3. Dan Grossman  |  February 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Reading just the blurb in this blog post, I find the argument extremely unconvincing. Governmental and industrial labs need lots of scientists with several years of post-undergraduate training, in terms of knowledge, skills, creativity, and research experience. You have to do science to learn science. If the labs want to take over those training responsibilities from universities, they probably can after many years of transition, but, uhm, I think they would end up looking a lot like universities without undergraduates. Is that split okay? Those from colleges would probably say “sure”. Most of the 37% of undergraduates in my department that do some sort of research or independent study would probably disagree.


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