How should Higher Education contribute to the Economy?

Over the last couple of decades, the answer to that question has increasingly focused on improving the abilities of colleges and universities to conduct and commercialize scientific research.  At the same time, higher education is being  called upon to improve its ability to train scientists and technology workers.  According to a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some strains are starting to show:

Universities are aggressively seeking federal dollars to build bigger and fancier laboratory facilities, and are not paying an equal amount of attention to teaching and nurturing the students who would fill them, scientists say in the articles.

“It’s a Ponzi scheme,” said Kenneth G. Mann, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Vermont, whose concerns were described by Nature. “Eventually you’ll have a situation where you’re not even producing the feedstock into the system.”

A group of researchers, led by two biology professors, Diane K. O’Dowd of the University of California at Irvine and Richard M. Losick of Harvard University, made a similar point in a commentary in Science. Teaching is suffering at universities because the institutions prize research success above all other factors in promotions, they said. The job of educating students offers little reward, and instead “often carries the derogatory label ‘teaching load,'” they wrote.

You do have to take some of these charges with a grain of salt.  Some scientists have specialized in fields that have no direct commercial applications.  They’re always going to get the short end of the stick in terms of research funding and, as is the culture in academia, will respond with a a stream of petty complaints.  Still, given the importance of science and technology to our economic competitiveness, these are complaints worth attending to.

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