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Spring 1993

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 93 > Article

Research Planning and
the Challenge of Change

by Alphonse Buccino

If change is unsettling, these are indeed agitated times.

Businesses -- even entire industries -- are downsizing and reorganizing. Governments at every level are trying to do more with less.

Research universities not only feel the pinch of this economic pressure, but also must contend with growing expectations from our clients, both public and private.

In the heat of all this change, long-standing relationships among governments, industries and educators are liquefying. Exactly how those traditional ties will bind in the future is yet to be seen.

But we needn't rush blindly or fearfully into the new world order. This isn't the first time higher education has faced such uncertainty. The waning years of World War II brought the same kind of reformation to higher education.

In our current unsettled environment, it's useful to recall the changes that took place 50 years ago -- the changes that brought us to where we are today.

In 1944, with research institutions geared up to develop the weapons of war, President Roosevelt looked ahead and asked Dr. Vannevar Bush of Columbia University, who was directing the Office of Naval Research at the time, to propose a blueprint for the future: What lessons learned in the wartime coordination and application of scientific knowledge could be applied in times of peace?

That report -- Science - The Endless Frontier -- is appropriately regarded as the cornerstone of modern science and technology policy in the United States. In particular, it has been the blueprint for the relationship that developed between the federal government and university research from that time to the present.

Dr. Bush's report promised the nation a prosperous, healthy and secure future if it made a substantial investment in basic research. That vision ultimately led to the development of the largest and strongest scientific and higher education system the world has ever seen -- resulting in scientific advances, technological breakthroughs and countless jobs in entirely new industries.

The promise of 1945 has been more than fulfilled.
What, then, will be the promise of 1993?

Among the groups to tackle that question is the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Its December 1992 study, Renewing the Promise: Research Intensive Universities and the Nation, takes a probing look at how higher education may adapt.

The PCAST study purposefully directs its attention to what it terms "research-intensive universities" -- those institutions that produce simultaneously the bulk of America's most highly-trained scientists and engineers and a substantial measure of our country's new scientific knowledge.

The term applies to somewhat more than 150 universities, including the University of Georgia, from among the more than 3,000 institutions of higher education in the United States. These universities are a core component of the nation's science and technology enterprise; their direct and indirect contribution to our national well-being -- economic growth, international competitiveness, and new jobs -- is immeasurable.

By the same token, that factor -- economic development and creation of new jobs -- is immeasurably important for research institutions to consider in light of the implications of a limited-resource environment.

Among the changes facing our society are new conceptions of national problems and national needs. These, in turn, affect how public resources are allocated.

In PCAST's view, the university-based system of research and education is not likely to expand for the indefinite future.

It is probably unreasonable to expect that the system will continue to grow as it did for brief periods in the 1960s and 1980s.

Given the resources that the nation is willing and/or able to devote to this enterprise, the system of university-based research, which has expanded three-fold since the publication of Science - The Endless Frontier, may already have, in PCAST's words, "exceeded its steady-state capacity."

For that reason, the PCAST report makes a strong case for selectivity and priority-setting based on the principle that each university should emphasize what it does best and not try to excel in every area.

In fact, the report makes many strong and candid observations about our current research system. It notes, for example, that two very different cultures have surrounded industrial research and university research. In industry, the drive for new products and processes sets the agenda in applied research and provides the context for fundamental research. On the other hand, university research is driven by a wide range of factors, some involving practical problems confronting society, but many curiosity-driven and associated with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, with no obvious relevance to immediate practical problems.

The PCAST report provides the tough assessment that despite recent gains in building links between universities and industry in the United States, too many individuals in both sectors hold to negative perspectives, attitudes and stereotypes about the other sector:

  • New Ph.D.s who view taking a job in industry as "selling out" rather than following an academic calling;
  • Industry managers who are unwilling to send their best people to a university setting, even for a short time;
  • Faculty members who believe that their only educational mission is to train students for faculty positions and who consequently channel their best students away from non-academic careers;
  • Industrialists who view university work as intellectual luxury;
  • Academicians who view industrial research and development as intellectually second rate.

The nation cannot afford to have this situation persist. And much more effort is required to overcome it.

The private sector can contribute greatly to fundamental research, even when it is not expected to yield short-term answers to industry. Conversely, U.S. industry should have the benefit of easy and immediate access to the new knowledge and new talent generated by universities.

Exchange of personnel at all levels is the surest answer to these problems.

We can take short-term measures to address these problems, but only long-run approaches will confront the cause. That is why the report declares that the teaching and learning of science and technology must be enhanced at every level, from elementary schools through doctoral programs and continuing education. PCAST faces the fact that many higher education institutions, including research-intensive universities, have come under fire for seeming to turn away from education, especially of undergraduates.

This is a serious and complex issue. The recommendations in the report will comprise a major contribution to the ongoing discussion of university roles and relationships. For example, the report calls for each research-intensive university to conduct a comprehensive review of the nature and quality of its teaching program, especially in science, math and engineering.

The impacts of the new environment are broad and general as are the findings and recommendations of the PCAST report.

I believe that the challenge is to translate the general idea of the need for change into specific policy and action for the nation, the states and individual universities.

Some significant adaptations already are underway in Georgia. For example, the governor has established an Advisory Council on Science and Technology Development to foster university/industry collaboration and assist in setting research agendas. Likewise, the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) is promoting collaborative activities among six public and private universities: Clark Atlanta, Emory, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, the Medical College of Georgia, and the University of Georgia. The GRA maintains a clear focus on economic development, spearheading initiatives in environmental technology, genetics and telecommunications.

Are these developments appropriate, consistent and adequate? These and other questions might be part of the deliberations in Georgia regarding the research universities and research planning.

In Georgia and elsewhere in the nation, taxpayers look to university systems and individual universities to provide the state with a well-educated workforce and a cadre of scientific and technical experts. Those human resources are well recognized as key to economic benefit for the state, the region and ultimately for the nation.

In today's economic environment, meeting those expectations -- providing an educated work force and the research to ensure new careers for those workers -- is a critical challenge for the state, its university system and each of its individual institutions.

The PCAST report is candid and direct on many recommendations that university researchers may consider tough medicine.

But this is a tough condition. And, as it did in 1945, the change could foster a much healthier patient.

Dr. Alphonse Buccino, dean of the UGA College of Education, returned to campus in March after a year-long sabbatical as an adviser on math and science education in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President.

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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