President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Trustee Retreat: Science, Technology, and Engineering
February 12, 2003
Where should Princeton focus its attention and resources in science, technology, and engineering? Should our emphasis be on basic or applied research, or both? How can we fund the rising costs of science and engineering? How much should we encourage faculty entrepreneurship? These are questions that any major research university must address on an ongoing basis. For this reason we selected this topic, along with pedagogy and Princeton as an international university, for consideration by the trustees at their retreat last fall.
The overall objective of the retreat was to give the trustees a chance to learn about and discuss issues of critical importance to the University without the pressure to make decisions. The background reading we provided for the session on science, technology, and engineering included comparative data on research funding levels and sources of funding at Princeton and sister institutions over the past 20 years, as well as provocative articles that predict the end of the last half century’s extraordinary growth in funding for research and in the number of individuals studying or choosing careers in these fields.
At the retreat, our inquiry was framed by opening comments from Dean of the Faculty Joseph Taylor, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and, as “outside expert,” John Marburger ’62, science adviser to President Bush and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Dr. Marburger was the president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and director of the Brookhaven National Laboratories before assuming his current responsibilities; he also is a former Princeton trustee. Here are some highlights that emerged in the course of the discussion.
• Princeton’s advantages and disadvantages. Although Princeton has some disadvantages when it comes to scientific and engineering research—such as its small size and no medical school (both conscious decisions on the part of the University)—it has several advantages, including strong centers of excellence in many departments, an intimate campus where collaboration across departments is facilitated, and the integration of engineering and science education in a liberal arts curriculum. We are also surrounded by strong neighboring or affiliated institutions such as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study, the federal government’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, the Sarnoff Laboratory, and major leaders in the pharmaceutical (New Jersey’s “pharma-valley”) and telecommunications industries.
• Basic versus applied research. Fifty years ago, the federal government made a conscious decision that it would invest in fundamental research as a way to build economic prosperity. The report that led to this decision was authored by Vannevar Bush, who at the time was science adviser to President Truman. He proposed that the investment be made in research universities, and that research be tightly linked to education, particularly to graduate education. While not obvious at the time, in hindsight this was one of the most important and prescient government decisions of the last century. It meant, for example, that much of the federally sponsored research would be carried out by “amateurs”—graduate students. The powerful impact that academic scientists conducting very basic research would have on the U.S. economy was also not clear at the time, yet we now see the fruits in the telecommunications, information technology, and biotechnology industries, to name just a few. At Princeton we have always emphasized the more basic end of the research spectrum, and the Trustees viewed basic research as a good fit for the University’s strengths. But they also underscored the importance of Princeton creating a welcoming environment for students and faculty who wish to do more applied research with a shorter timeframe for impact on the private sector. In recent years, the University has strengthened its office of technology licensing and intellectual property and the School of Engineering and Applied Science has increased its interactions with industry. We want to be supportive of the entrepreneurship that faculty have demonstrated.
• Funding sources outside the government. Paying for research in the sciences and engineering will continue to be a challenge. Far and away the largest part of the University’s sponsored research budget comes from federal funding. But we must also look to other sources. Over the years, Princeton has entered into several collaborative arrangements with industry, and we have learned valuable lessons from these experiences. It is essential that these arrangements be consonant with our commitments to the open exchange of ideas and to teaching. For example, we need to be sure that graduate students will be able to conduct their research without the influence of the marketplace and to publish their research in a timely fashion. A sudden termination of an agreement with an outside collaborator can be fatal for the progress of a graduate student’s research. But under the right circumstances, partnerships can open up opportunities by providing access to equipment or expertise that we do not have.
So, while caution is the watchword, and we should be ever guided by our focus on the quality of our education as well as the quality of our research, we do want to be open to opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships when they arise.