July 2010

Funding Research and Education

Assumption 2: “If not managed carefully, the research programmes developed to improve the undergraduate experience for a select few students could lead to the devolution of the academic quality for the large majority.” In other words, research is readily dispensable for the student body as a whole because it only impacts a handful of elite undergraduates. Although access to undergraduate research experiences may be limited in some institutions, in general, the prevailing trend has been to expand undergraduate research programs at colleges and universities. Indeed, my own university is about to hire its first director for undergraduate research, whereas the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s 14th annual undergraduate poster session in Anaheim, Calif., drew a record 180 plus presentations. On the other hand, if Jones is correct, why not call for measures that would make such experiences available to greater numbers of students, rather than curtail them entirely?

Assumption 3: Innovation and creativity can be “managed.” This is a recurring theme amongst advocates of big science, of running universities according to business models, etc. I do not pretend to posses the ultimate answer to this longstanding debate. I would note, however, that for every example of a successful big science project, such as the Human Genome Project, the Manhattan Project and the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo moon program, there are manifold examples of the genius of the individual: both scientist and nonscientist. Each has his or her own place, and the unbroken record of success generated by the somewhat eclectic approach of the past several decades suggests that people— individuals, partners, groups and consortia— are the key to discovery, not some administrative philosophy or organizational regimentation. The danger of Jones’ proposed concentration is not just the damage it will do to undergraduate education. It likely will have deleterious effects on the research enterprise itself as a consequence of limiting the key element of discovery— human intellect and imagination.

Assumption 4: “There won’t be enough money in the U.S. Treasury over the next decade to even maintain the current federal R&D baseline.” Consistency is not a word oftentimes associated with the American system of government. Many of the members of Congress who vehemently decry the government’s growing indebtedness voted for many of the measures that led to the accumulation of these deficits a few years previously. Although the current atmosphere makes it more challenging to convince our elected representatives to invest in research and education, there remain many in Congress who understand the need to invest continually in the interrelated areas of education, health, technology and economic competitiveness. The economy continues to show encouraging signs of improvement, offering the hope of greater budgetary flexibility.

Although the budgetary realities can never be ignored, they should not become the primary driver of our national research and educational policies. Rather than sit back and accept the “inevitable,” as Jones suggests, I would argue that our attention and energies would be better spent engaging in public outreach and political lobbying, and— yes— sponsoring undergraduate research.

References

1. Jones, D. A. (2010) Financial Pain Should Focus Universities. Nature 465, 32 – 33.
2. Scudellari, M. Q&A: Why Cutting Science Is Good. TheScientist.com. May 5, 2010.

Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chair of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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