Could Science Leave the University?

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

The university needs science, but how much does science need the university?

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.

And scientific publication doesn’t really need the university at all. Important results can be perfectly well vetted and disseminated outside the protocols of higher education, although the journal publishers would keenly regret the loss of income from university libraries and hefty public-dissemination fees.

Science may not absolutely need the university but it does get some considerable benefits:  systematic teaching and training of new scientists; career paths that allow for long timelines in developing ideas; an orderly system of funding and the social stability that comes from that; well-established and up-to-date facilities in an institution that understands the competitive need to keep them that way; and an infrastructure that typically includes things such as abundant high-speed computing. The university, in other words, is a very convenient place to pursue science. Many scientists like it, not least because they like the opportunities it presents to engage with colleagues in other disciplines, and because quite a few (certainly not all) scientists enjoy teaching.

Have I missed anything? Perhaps it could be argued that the university’s role as a teacher and trainer of new scientists is irreplaceable—that science has reached the stage of complexity that no other institution could carry out this work at anything like the efficiency of the university. It is a reasonable argument but I don’t think it is quite right. The liberal-arts college, for example, often does an outstanding job of preparing undergraduates for graduate study in the sciences—and does so with only a relatively modest investment in the basic enterprise of science. If scientific research were to vanish from higher education, higher education could still manage to educate students to a high level of intellectual proficiency in chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, geology, computer science, engineering, and so on. We might well lose something in that transition. Some active researchers who teach would find the research-less environment unattractive and de-camp, and students might find the absence of active researchers makes learning science a duller undertaking. On the other hand, a lot of college science is already taught by faculty members whose claim to being active researchers is very thin or trivial. So the loss could turn out to be minor.

These ruminations are prompted by a couple of convergent thoughts:

First, the United States seems to be entering a period in which its national commitment to major scientific undertaking is a bit shaky. A few weeks ago the Department of Energy confirmed that for lack of funds ($35-million per year) it is shutting down the Tevatron atom-smasher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The closure will leave the U.S. without any major high-energy particle accelerator capable of new fundamental physics. The James Webb Space Telescope, intended as a replacement for the Hubble Telescope, is years behind schedule. Its cost overruns have forced other important projects, such as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, designed to investigate “dark energy,” into long-term abeyance. President Obama cancelled the Constellation program that would have taken Americans back to the Moon. We have no practical replacement for the Space Shuttle program, which is down to two remaining flights. The government hopes the private sector will step in with some vehicle capable of reaching low-earth orbit so that the U.S. isn’t left buying expensive bus tickets on Russian rockets to heft our astronauts into space. In the other direction, the National Science Foundation just turned down additional support for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory that would occupy the old Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota—a project with potential to help in the search for “dark matter” and proton decay.

The U.S. government continues to spend enormous amounts on scientific research but it is hard to avoid the impression that as a nation we have lost some of our real zeal for adventure. To be sure, there will always be more proposals for scientific research than the nation can reasonably pay for. We have to make choices, and a good way to do that is to think about the alternatives. Last year the National Academy of Sciences, for example, issued a report identifying the highest priorities in astronomy and astrophysics. Its highest priority was the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope—the one that NASA just pushed to the back burner.

The cancellation and delay of so many key science initiatives inevitably means disappointment for academic scientists, and in some cases it will mean a good deal more than disappointment. Some research will simply stop, if not altogether at least in the United States.

Second, while contemplating the stringencies in federal funding of “big science,” I’ve also wondered how university science will feel the dark energy of higher education’s bubble. The sense of a higher education bubble about to burst never leaves me for long. We seem to be at a moment when many Americans are re-assessing whether the path to adulthood and a good career necessarily lies through a four-year baccalaureate degree program in a traditional college or university. I won’t take the time in this instance to rehearse the arguments and evidence that this may be happening. There is a growing body of writing on the topic, some of it mine, and the reader can weigh it on its own merits. But if we indulge the hypothesis—that there is indeed a higher education bubble which— if it pops—could bring a significant decline in students pursuing college degrees and a follow-on contraction of public support for colleges and universities and a possible winnowing of institutions themselves—what becomes of university science?

I don’t doubt that, no matter what happens, we will find a good way to teach basic science courses. But what about the rest of university-based science? Could it become collateral damage as Americans turn away from institutions that are overpriced and oversold? Universities, knowing that science is indispensable to their enterprise, would of course hold on to their scientific research for dear life. They might even be willing to sacrifice other commitments that are typically closer to the hearts of trustees and administrators such as NCAA sports and programs based on identity politics, to maintain the substantial overhead that they glean from sponsored research in the sciences.

Even with that kind of effort, however, the university will end up as a less attractive landlord for scientific inquiry. Once you see the upper floors boarded off, used furniture sales on the unmowed front lawn, and florescent-colored overdue utility bills spilling from the super’s mailbox, you begin to wonder if it might be time to move. The most important things the university has to offer science would be hollowed out in a university struggling to cope with serious declines in enrollment: secure careers for scientists; a robust infrastructure reliably maintained and updated with the help of federal funds; an amiable and confident institutional base.

Does science need the university? Not so much that it won’t go looking for a better place to stay if things get ugly. If I were starting a career in the sciences today, I would pay a lot more attention to what private industry and the entrepreneurs have to offer than to the possibility of an academic post. If I were planning a line of research that is likely to take hundreds of millions of dollars and decades to consummate, I’d also think about how to find or invent an institutional setting beyond the university. It’s been done before.

This is not an eventuality I welcome. I’d rather see university science continue in something like its current form. My fear is that our nation’s shaky commitment to fundamental science on one hand and our overgrown and withal exploitative system of higher education on the other hand have created a situation that puts that historical partnership in jeopardy. All the current emphasis on STEM education in secondary schools and NSF-funded programs to encourage more Americans to major in science fields won’t repair the basic situation.

I am, of course, extrapolating on the basis of very incomplete facts. Perhaps federal support for fundamental scientific research is just in a momentary lull and the higher education bubble is a mere figment. I am sharing apprehensions, not sounding an alarm. And if the apprehensions are correct, it is way too late for the alarm. We should be looking beyond the embers to whatever comes next. 

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