September 2012

Service is in our best self-interest

While university administrators seek out and reward faculty members who serve their communities, they’re not focused on the greater good. But they should be.

Advertised descriptions for faculty positions in American universities almost always refer to “research, teaching and service” as expectations of successful applicants, and the merit and promotion procedures in universities almost universally address faculty members’ activities in these three areas.

Success in research and teaching usually can be gauged relative to some clear standards, but success in service is generally much more difficult to ascertain. Faculty on review teams look for evidence of professional service, such as editorial work and grant reviews; service to professional societies; or college or university service, such as academic administration, committee assignments, student advising and mentoring.

But service to the larger society, to the public we serve, seldom gains much traction in the merit and promotion evaluation systems. This seems to me to be strangely out of sync with the needs of both science and society.

Good intentions with diminishing returns
The Morrill Act of 1862 established the land-grant university system that has served the United States so well for the past 150 years. Even in the darkest days of the American Civil War, President Lincoln and the Congress realized that the future of the nation depended upon a strong, accessible system of higher education.

Today, however, higher education is threatened by devastating funding cuts that are making it inaccessible to all but the wealthy, and the public seems to be unaware of the potential grave impacts on future generations.

At the same time that the core infrastructure of public higher education is waning, public trust of science and scientists is eroding. Recent polls suggest that events such as the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster and the overestimation of the H1N1 influenza pandemic have compromised public trust in science, and public misunderstanding of such matters as vaccine risks, stem-cell research and the use of animals in research also contributes to this decline.

To reverse this worrisome trend, it is essential that university faculty members take it upon themselves to inform the public of the value of America’s great university system, to engage the public in discussions of the nature of science and the scientific process, and to recruit the passion of the people to move higher education closer to the top of the national agenda. But even when faculty members do get involved, without buy-in of the top administration of universities, their efforts are muted.

For more faculty to become engaged in K–12 math and science outreach, to devote more time to working with middle- and high-school students on science-fair projects, to develop science cafés, to deliver lectures for the public, and so forth, the reward system needs to be restructured.

The responsibility is shared
The challenge is twofold. First, university administrators have to come to respect, support and reward faculty efforts to advance the public opinion of science. Second, faculty members have to take advantage of the added dimension of the meaning of service and outreach as they attempt to do that for which they receive a paycheck. This is a matter of changing the culture of academic science. It is vital that American universities accept that outreach to and engagement with the lay public is a most serious form of service that should be rewarded through the merit and promotion systems. The culture of universities is based on many decades of tradition, and changing it will not happen quickly unless the top leadership of American universities accepts the challenge to debate and, ultimately, to redefine the parameters by which the service efforts of their faculty members are evaluated and rewarded.


Photo of Thomas O. BaldwinThomas O. Baldwin ( is the executive associate dean for external relations at the University of California, Riverside, College of Natural and Agricultural Science and a member of the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee.


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