Although we are facing a funding crisis, divorcing undergraduate education from research will not insure continued innovation and success in the laboratory and the classroom, as some suggest. (Titled "False Choices" in print version.)
In a recent Nature opinion piece titled “Financial Pain Should Focus Universities,” (1) Diane Auer Jones reminds us that the clock is ticking. The transient bolus of extramural research and development funding generated by federal stimulus programs soon will be a memory. Jones sees a silver lining in this “dark cloud for the U.S. scientific enterprise,” however. She outlines a clear and simple national strategy to insure continued innovation and success both in the laboratory and the classroom — divorce undergraduate education from research.
Under Jones’ plan, competitive research would be concentrated in approximately 100 select institutions. A (competitive) research-null phenotype will be adopted by, or conferred upon, the nation’s remaining 3,500 colleges and universities. Diminished demand for federal grants, she argues, will stabilize National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation pay lines at higher levels, reducing the time spent chasing money and enhancing productivity. Faculty at “teaching-intensive” institutions, on the other hand, would be liberated from the administrative pressure to engage in the quixotic pursuit of scarce grant dollars. Students, she argues, would be the biggest winners as faculty devote their full time and energy to their educational mission.
Given that numerous opinion pieces are published every day, why respond to Jones? First, however shocking Jones’ thesis may be to an informed reader, it possesses the type of appealingly straightforward logic that plays well in the sound bite world of politics and public opinion. Second, Jones’ credentials include stints as a biology professor, NSF program officer, congressional staffer, and assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the Bush administration. Lastly, Jones’ piece appeared in a prestigious and widely read journal. It also was subject to a follow-up piece in a “NewsBlog” for The Scientist with the less nuanced title, “Why Cutting Science Is Good” (2).
Jones raises some valid points, several of which have been the subject of discussion within the scientific community for many years. How do we raise pay lines if every increase in NIH funding elicits more applications? What is the best strategy for funding science and engineering such that both research and education are well served? In the end, however, her central thesis— that research and teaching fundamentally are incompatible— presents us with a false choice based upon several flawed assumptions.
Assumption 1: Participation in extramurally funded research causes educators to lose sight of their mission. Although Jones is correct inasmuch as the intensive demands of research and instruction confront faculty with a difficult balancing act, she dismisses the many positive contributions that active research programs make to an institution’s undergraduate educational mission. Students get the benefit of learning from bona fide practioners of the art whose experiences and expertise remain current and vibrant. The experiential learning opportunities afforded undergraduate students not only enhance their knowledge and skills but also serve as powerful vehicles for informing their subsequent career choices. These benefits have been documented repeatedly in numerous studies on this topic. Moreover, “real world” validation of these scholarly studies can be readily found in the row upon row of job ads listing experience as a prime hiring criterion, even for entry-level positions.