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Fall 1993

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 93 > Article

The S-Curve and the Growth of Research Universities
By Eugene P. Odum, Director Emeritus, Institute of Ecology

If you look, as ecologists do, at the way things grow, you'll see some interesting parallels. Whether you're examining ecosystems, cities, societies, academic disciplines or universities, the patterns of growth and change are remarkably similar.

In ecology, we often refer to the "sigmoid growth form," a term used to describe a three-phased growth period in which an interval of slow growth is followed by very rapid, often exponential, growth in size and complexity, and eventually levels off to a kind of pulsing plateau.

This is the "S-curve" for quantitative growth. Theodore Modis, a physicist, notes the widespread occurrence of this pattern in a recent book review he wrote for Science magazine (259:1349, 1993). His review of the book Predictions carries the portentous title "S-curves Everywhere."

Sometimes the rapid growth phase continues for too long, producing a "boom and bust cycle." This happens in nature, and too often in human affairs as, for example, when corporations grow too fast and become too big for their own good, and then have to scale back to survive. The recent history of IBM may be an example.

My theme in this commentary is that there is another, more important -- and more difficult to measure and quantify -- phase of growth that can occur after growth has reached a plateau. For want of a better term we can call this phase "qualitative growth" -- that is, getting better rather than bigger. In other words, there is potentially a better life after the S-curve growth is complete.

We know this is true from personal experience: When growth in body size stops after adolescence, we devote most of our lives to becoming better -- not bigger -- human beings.

Herman Daly and his colleagues at the World Bank, in a 1991 UNESCO report titled "Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development," echo the call of a new generation of economists who argue that the time has come for a transition from traditional economic growth to qualitative growth that they call "economic development." They suggest that this transition should begin in the developed world where waste, pollution and per capital consumption of resources is so unnecessarily large as to threaten global life-support systems. So far as anyone knows there is no limit to growth in quality, but it is becoming increasingly evident that there are limits to quantitative economic growth that is based on ever more consumption of resources in a finite world.

During my 53 years with the University of Georgia, the university has gone through a period of sigmoid growth. Growth in size was very slow for more than a century. In 1940, when I came here to teach, the student body was about 3,000, and the faculty was very small and burdened by backbreaking teaching loads and almost no money for basic research. Between 1950 and 1980 there was a period of very rapid growth in the student body, in graduate study and in funds for research. Although enrollment of graduate students is still growing, efforts are now being made to plateau the size of the total student body and faculty by raising the standards for admission and for faculty advancement and recruitment -- i.e., quality control. This shift from quantity to quality is the proper way for a university of continue to grow in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, the level of state funding is currently based more on quantity than on quality; the more "warm bodies," the greater the appropriation. So there are very long political incentives to grow ever bigger in the hopes of getting more money.

We need to develop and make more use of indices of quality in determining the level of funding, such as proportion of students in the honors program or who get good jobs upon graduation, faculty research output, national rank of the institution and its programs, quality of teaching and so on.

Growth in quality has its costs and benefits, as does growth in numbers. An often unrecognized common denominator in the growth of any large and complex system, human or natural, is that the cost of maintenance tends to increase as some kind of power function of the increase in size. That is, as a university (or any other system) doubles in size, the cost of maintaining order in the system (or as we ecologists put it, the cost of "pumping out the disorder" inherent in any complex system) more than doubles.

If you don't believe that, take a look at the growth of the budget for plant operations including the increasing costs of repairs, security, parking, buses, control of outdoor and indoor (i.e. "sick" buildings) pollution and on and on. There are increasing returns of scale, as economists like to point out, early in a quantitative growth cycle, but sooner or later there are decreasing returns of scale. Have we reached this point at the University of Georgia, where maintenance costs are seriously reducing funds available for increasing the quality of education and research?

Rise in maintenance costs is especially acute in the growth of research programs, especially in fast-moving areas. Most every laboratory has expensive instruments that are either obsolete or broken and awaiting repairs. As research programs grow, increasing amounts of grant money are diverted as "overhead" to help pay for space, facilities and maintenance leaving less for the actual research. Keeping costs and bureaucracy from getting out of hand is the tough challenge for administrators of large research programs.

A really good research university needs two things: Endowments sufficient to support and keep talented research professors, and the means to support good technicians and post-doctoral students who do much of the day-to-day research and who provide the vital link between the graduate student and the busy senior investigator.

What is not generally understood by the public is that the reputation of a university outside the state is based on research and publication, while the reputation within the state is based on the quality of teaching and service. These functions can be mutualistic rather than competitive if post-docs and tenured professors actively take part in undergraduate education.

During the rapid growth period in our university there was a proliferation of departments, and, as we now recognize, too great a fragmentation of disciplines accompanied by a decline in the quality of general education. Fortunately, this trend is being reversed by efforts to combine closely related disciplines into one administrative unit, and especially by the development of cross-disciplinary institutes and centers which can deal with the large scale of real-world problems and thereby attract more outside money from the federal government, foundations and industry. And all of this is being accompanied by coordinated efforts to increase the quality of undergraduate teaching.

Our Institute of Ecology is an example of a center that contributes to quality growth. We bring together people who are already here from a variety of disciplines for research and education that goes beyond that of any one discipline. We strive to balance competition, which is a way of life in human affairs as in nature, with cooperation and symbiosis, which becomes important when things get crowded and complicated. Best of all, we promote the interfaces between disciplines such as between economics and ecology or agriculture and biology.

In the near future we hope to focus on the most important of all interfaces -- those between natural science, social science and the humanities, where the real world problems are most acute. We also promote off-campus satellite programs on the coast, at the Savannah River Site and elsewhere in the region that bring in additional staff and large amounts of outside money. Now that the Institute has become administratively a "school," more of our research staff will be involved in undergraduate teaching and public service.

In 1967, renowned author and social critic Lewis Mumford wrote a commentary titled "Quality in Control of Quantity" (In: Natural Resources: Quality and Quantity, Ciriacy-Wantrup and Parsons, eds. Univ. of Calf., Berkeley, pp. 7-18, 1967). He wrote: "The problem of our age, which dominates and underlies most of its other problems is the problem of quantity. I intend no diatribe against progress in science and technics, so long as they remain subordinate to organic functions and human purposes. I am merely trying to explain how their immense human benefits were curtailed by a one-sided emphasis on quantity, and the exercise of a one-sided control over both man and nature, who speedily become victim of his own favored method.

"Quality in control of quantity," Mumford wrote, "is the great lesson of biological evolution."

It is also a great lesson for research universities.

Eugene P. Odum wrote three of the most widely used ecology textbooks -- Fundamentals of Ecology, Ecology and Basic Ecology, all of which have been translated into several languages. He has received three international awards for his pioneering work in ecology and the environment: the Tyler Ecology Award, recognized as the most prestigious environmental prize in the world, the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for works in science not covered by the Nobel Prize, and La Institute de la Vie prize, awarded by the French government. He received the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal in 1991 for his lifelong work in conservation and natural resources, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He helped found the Institute of Ecology, the Marine Institute and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at the University of Georgia. The acknowledged father of modern ecology, Eugene Odum is the Callaway Professor Emeritus of Ecology, the Alumni Foundation Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Zoology and director emeritus of the Institute of Ecology.

For more information go to http://www.ecology.uga.edu/

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