Why Academic Research?

Why, exactly, is there research conducted in universities? Why is it supported by the government (mostly the federal government)? The modern arrangements of the government farming out money to do research dates back to the end of World War II, when Vannevar Bush wrote a policy document “Science–The Endless Frontier” and managed to get the legislation creating the National Science Foundation to support basic, and not just applied, research. Some parts of that 1945 report are worth quoting at length:

The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science  in accordance with the Five Fundamentals [listed below] …

Continuing on, here are Bush’s Five Fundamentals:

There are certain basic principles which must underlie the program of Government support for scientific research and education if such support is to be effective and if it is to avoid impairing the very things we seek to foster. These principles are as follows:

(1) Whatever the extent of support may be, there must be stability of funds over a period of years so that long-range programs may be undertaken. (2) The agency to administer such funds should be composed of citizens selected only on the basis of their interest in and capacity to promote the work of the agency. They should be persons of broad interest in and understanding of the peculiarities of scientific research and education. (3) The agency should promote research through contracts or grants to organizations outside the Federal Government. It should not operate any laboratories of its own. (4) Support of basic research in the public and private colleges, universities, and research institutes must leave the internal control of policy, personnel, and the method and scope of the research to the institutions themselves. This is of the utmost importance. (5) While assuring complete independence and freedom for the nature, scope, and methodology of research carried on in the institutions receiving public funds, and while retaining discretion in the allocation of funds among such institutions, the Foundation proposed herein must be responsible to the President and the Congress. Only through such responsibility can we maintain the proper relationship between science and other aspects of a democratic system. The usual controls of audits, reports, budgeting, and the like, should, of course, apply to the administrative and fiscal operations of the Foundation, subject, however, to such adjustments in procedure as are necessary to meet the special requirements of research.

Basic research is a long-term process – it ceases to be basic if immediate results are expected on short-term support. Methods should therefore be found which will permit the agency to make commitments of funds from current appropriations for programs of five years duration or longer. Continuity and stability of the program and its support may be expected (a) from the growing realization by the Congress of the benefits to the public from scientific research, and (b) from the conviction which will grow among those who conduct research under the auspices of the agency that good quality work will be followed by continuing support.

The premise of this document is that basic, inquiry-based scientific research, deserves the support of the federal government. In other words, the purpose of the National Science Foundation is to fund basic research. (Reading this is a reminder of the profound optimism and can-do attitude that followed WWII.  The full document is worth a read).

It isn’t remotely clear to GG that this is where we are today. The press to publish multiple papers a year suggests that the kind of longterm research programs Bush thought were important are being discouraged. The more detailed investigations of Congress into NSF are challenging the freedom of research Bush championed. Basic research–inquiry-based research–is increasingly viewed as a waste of money. Research today should be yielding results of use today. But it is more complex yet.

Why do research in universities at all?

At one level, because the research is conducted by faculty who are also teaching, the results of the research can be incorporated into material taught to students.  At another level, students can participate in research, gaining valuable insight.

Increasingly, research is pursued in order to fund students.  The training of students is increasingly used to justify money spent in NSF (see the Broader Impacts requirements). So should university research primarily exist to fund students or allow for inquiry-based research?

This is not a trivial thing to answer.  Virtually any research into the most trivial or banal of unanswered questions can be a valuable teaching tool. What is the history of that cobble in that conglomerate?  Would anybody care?  Doesn’t matter, you learn about, perhaps, radiometric dating, provenance work, maybe low-temperature geochronology. In this model, nearly worthless and dull research is fundable because it teaches somebody.

When you see Bush promoting five year or more grants and an expectation that many projects will fail, arguing that inquiry-based research provides the grist for later, more practical R&D work, you see a vision that we have largely lost.  Or, perhaps, we’ve simply buried it under such a mass of scientists and institutions that we can no longer see it.

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