Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Do Universities Engage in Research?

In the course of the ongoing conversation over how much higher education budgets in Louisiana will be cut, and how those cuts will be distributed, there have been attacks on university faculty as being inefficient and unproductive. Two major claims of non-productivity are sabbaticals and research. I will leave sabbaticals for another post, except to say that at Louisiana Tech they are so rare as to be  a complete non-issue. In the six years I have been an administrator, there have been two paid sabbaticals in my departments, and one of them was taken at LSU (so that the state retained all of that faculty member's productivity despite the sabbatical!)

The other claim is that professors devote too much time to research, that they are paid to teach but instead engage in research rather than concentrating on instruction, and that when they do deign to teach their instruction is subpar because their real focus is on research. These views of university research are rooted in a misunderstanding of the role of research at a university, and are simply wrong. Research is not separate from educational instruction. In fact, research is a necessary and integral part of instruction. However, that is not to say that all institutions of higher education in Louisiana should be engaged in research. Let me explain.

I often use the expression "Research is the zenith of education". The last, best lesson a student learns is how to add new knowledge in his or her chosen field. This is a required educational component for students pursuing a graduate degree, original research being required for a Masters thesis, and even more extensive original research for a doctoral dissertation. All institutions which grant graduate degrees must have faculty who are engaged in ongoing research, in order for these students to complete their degrees. Research does not just start from scratch at a moment's notice either; it takes years to build a lab, to develop a publishing record, and to obtain the grants and other funding to operate a research program.

Research also involves undergraduates. At Louisiana Tech, all of our chemistry and physics majors have to engage in a research project by their senior year, as a condition for graduation. Other programs have similar requirements.  My own research group consists of three faculty (all of whom teach regular classes, by the way), two postdoctoral researchers, six PhD students, two Masters students, and four undergraduate students. When I am in the lab or at my desk working with these students, I am teaching in the oldest and best way: one on one, passing on my knowledge of the field to the next generation of scientists.

I have not spent a lot of time talking about research as a money-making venture for universities, because I do not believe it is the most important reason why universities have on-campus research. But it is a fact that researchers bring in money for the universities. Most people are unaware of what are called "indirect costs" - portions of grants that go directly to the university to offset the costs (electricity, staff support) of doing research. My grants generate enough in indirect funds each year to pay for one full-time employee at Louisiana Tech. In addition, grants generate funds to pay for graduate students to attend the university, and to pay undergraduates to work in our labs. They buy equipment, much of which is also used in courses, and pay for technical staff. Then there is the occasional big money prize: the research that turns into a commercial product. Louisiana Tech researchers have one of the best track records in the nation for producing commercial products and licenses, with the highest number of patents per research dollars expended.

The presence of research universities is directly tied to economic development. These universities can be engines of economic growth. From the North Carolina Research Triangle and the Alabama Tuscaloosa-Birmingham corridor to Austin and Silicon Valley, high tech enterprises are always associated with the presence of comprehensive (and well-funded) research universities. Universities provide the basic research, which industries then turn into applied R&D and, eventually, commercial products. Make no mistake about this - our competitors in the global market know this. China, India, Japan all are investing in university research.

What of the argument that research-active faculty are poor teachers? The opposite is more often the case. A professor who is engaged in his or her field, and who knows and understands the latest developments in it, is invariably better at communicating his or her passion for that discipline to students. In 1995, when an experiment I was on at Fermi National Accelerator Lab discovered the top quark, an article was published in the New York Times that addressed this question of whether researchers also teach. Entitled "'Top' University Scientists Do Teach", it found that all but 12 of 123  PhD faculty engaged in the search for the top quark had taught a class that semester (and eight of those 12 were scheduled to teach the following semester). Together they taught nearly 10,000 students during the term when the top quark discovery was announced.To quote from the article: "We are mistaken in portraying the university as a teaching institution. It is a learning institution, and learning must take place at all levels from the newest freshman to the most senior professor. How can one learn from someone whose own learning is a dusty, distant memory?"

If research is both a desired and a necessary component of education, then should all faculty at all of Louisiana's colleges and universities engage in research? Unfortunately, the answer to this has to be "No." Not all universities in the state are graduate-degree granting, and we have neither the resources nor the population to take them all to that level. Certainly research should be encouraged at LSU and at the three other research intensive universities - Louisiana Tech, UL-Lafayette, and the University of New Orleans. Other schools with a narrow offering of graduate degrees, like the pharmacy program at UL-Monroe, have to be allowed to have research-active faculty in that area and in allied disciplines. But many schools in the state are, and should remain, primarily undergraduate institutions. 

This state has hard choices to make. What kind of higher education system do we want? How will we pay for it? Which institutions will be allowed to function as comprehensive graduate universities? My hope is that these questions can be discussed and debated without attacking faculty for doing what they were asked to do when they were hired: Teach well, and do world-class research.

1 comment:

W. B. Brown said...

I just watched an overlong response, typed with one finger on my iPhone, disappear as I was filling in my password. I will try to reconstruct the main points when it's daylight and I can borrow a computer.