The 2003 Killam Lecture: The Challenges of Educating the Next Generation of the Professoriate
President Shirley M. Tilghman
October 23, 2003
Presented at the University of British Columbia
The annual Killam Lecture, named in honour of Izaak Walton Killam and his wife Dorothy Killam, recognizes two individuals who achieved extraordinary success in the financial world. Through their vision and extraordinary generosity, the Killam Trusts have supported graduate and postgraduate education in Canada since their inception in 1965. By the awarding of Killam Chairs and Prizes to senior scholars and Fellowships and Scholarships to promising young students, the Trusts have expressed their faith in the importance of higher education.
Thus it seems fitting that I have chosen to discuss some of the challenges that face research universities in both Canada and the United States in preparing the next generation of scientists and scholars who will join the professoriate, and carry on the mission that the Killams believed in so passionately. I will restrict my remarks to the natural sciences and engineering, as the issues in these fields are somewhat different from those in the humanities and social sciences. The focus will also be tilted more toward the U.S. than Canada, as it is the university system in which I have spent the last 33 years of my life.
The message I hope to deliver is the overriding importance to Canada and the U.S. of attracting the brightest and ablest of our undergraduates into careers in scientific research in general and into our university faculties in particular. The reasons are straightforward enough. First, research universities have assumed the role of research engines for our countries; they are the sources of innovation and future prosperity. If the universities falter, so do the future health and well-being of our countries. Second, as I reminded members of Princeton’s board of trustees recently when they were questioning why we spend so much time and resources vying with other universities for the very best faculty, a university in which the students are smarter than the faculty is not an attractive model for excellence in education.
At the outset it is worth reminding ourselves of something that the Killams themselves clearly understood. Universities and colleges hold a highly privileged place in our society because of a longstanding consensus about the value of education. North Americans have an almost childlike faith in what formal education can do for them. In the United States that faith is based on the conviction that the vitality of the country, its creative and diverse cultural life, its staggeringly inventive economy, and the robustness of its democratic institutions owe much to the quality of its institutions of higher education. That confidence is expressed in the investments by our federal, provincial and state governments, and in the private philanthropy exhibited by individuals like the Killams.
In return for this broad support, society rightfully expects certain things from its universities. Simply put, they expect the generation of new ideas and the discovery of new knowledge that metamorphoses into future jobs and economic growth and prosperity. It also expects the exploration of complex issues in an open and collegial manner and, finally and most importantly, the preparation of the next generation of citizens and leaders.
Modern research universities, in this respect, are decidedly not ivory towers, nor would we want them to be. They are very much “of the world” – in fact, they shape the world through the students they educate, the knowledge they discover, and the ideas they generate. The research conducted by faculty and students aims to gain insight and to find solutions to pressing problems that range from discovering the molecular basis of cancer to inventing new computer algorithms for air traffic control, providing new insight into great works of art, uncovering the meaning of historical events, proposing global governance strategies, devising better health-care policies, and addressing thousands of other issues that confront us as nations and as a global society. Universities are essential if we are to meet a broad range of human, social, scientific, environmental, and other needs, and to fulfill their missions universities must engage the world through their scholars, their students, and their alumni.
These fundamental purposes – research, teaching, and the dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of society – form a seamless continuum, so tightly interlocked at the best universities that it is not possible to tell when one stops and the next begins. Our goal is not simply to discover new knowledge; we also have an obligation as a university to encourage the application of knowledge to help meet the challenges of the world in which we live, and to help meet the needs of those with whom we share this precious planet. This is why our faculty and students publish books and papers, write op-ed pieces and columns in newspapers, give public lectures, advise members of local, state, provincial, and federal governments, speak to primary school students and senior citizens groups, and work with companies, civil society organizations, advocacy, and public interest groups, and other entities that have the capacity to effect positive and meaningful change.
In the fields of science and technology, the great American research universities became the research engines of the country only relatively recently – in fact they can trace the origin to a social contract they entered into with the federal government about 50 years ago with the formation of the National Science Foundation and, several years later, the National Institutes of Health. Although it is hard to imagine it today, prior to the Second World War no government invested to any significant extent in fundamental scientific research. In those days private foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation were important supporters of research in universities, with state and federal governments providing relatively modest funds. The war changed everything, as the government turned to academic scientists, particularly physicists, to develop the weapons that would win the war. National research laboratories were created at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, and others that already existed were greatly expanded. The idea that egghead academics could make a substantive contribution to the national good was now firmly on the table.
So when President Harry Truman turned to Vannevar Bush, the science advisor to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman during the war, to advise him on how to sustain future scientific advances, Bush was faced with a critical choice. In the end he changed history by writing a highly influential report called Science – the Endless Frontier where he laid out the principles by which the U.S. federal government would link its future investments in fundamental research with education, particularly the education of graduate students. Bush's other critical recommendation was to make peer review the central dogma for awarding research funds.
As we look back on that seminal decision, it is amazing to see how non-obvious the choice was. Bush could have advised Truman to invest in the national government laboratories that were already in place or in the private research institutes like Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory or the Carnegie Institute. These institutions had the necessary scientific infrastructure in place, and teams of well-trained scientists ready to go. Instead Bush chose a system in which the science itself was going to be conducted by beginners, amateurs; in other words, students whose inexperience would surely bring substantial efficiency costs. What Vannevar Bush understood so brilliantly is that the efficiency costs were more than compensated for by the continual flow of young, imaginative, bold and perhaps naïve minds through the scientific enterprise. By betting on the young, the system acquired a vitality and energy, together with a capacity to continually change, that would make it the envy of the world.
And that envy is well-justified, as is clear by almost any metric you choose. Whether it is Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, or medicine, the positive impact on the economy, the number of foreign students who aspire to study in our universities – all the evidence points to the great wisdom of choosing a system for federal R&D that combines education and research.
A very similar set of decisions was being taken in Canada after the Second World War, and the conclusion was the same: that linking research with training would provide a lasting benefit to the scientific and technological infrastructure of the country. Although the Canadian National Research Council had been in existence since 1916, it was largely an advisory body to the government, and oversaw a number of government laboratories without ties to universities. It was during the science and technological boom of the 1950s and 1960s that the Council formed its own social contract with universities in earnest, and thereby made a lasting investment in scientific discovery and thus the future.
The social contract between the federal government and universities allowed for the enormous expansion in the number of graduate students trained in the sciences. This expansion in the 1950s and 1960s occurred to meet two needs: students became the unit of scientific work – they were the workers who carried out the research agenda of the country. At the same time, the expansion created the next generation of scientists and faculty members, who were badly needed as the research enterprise expanded in the 1960s. Eventually, however, this exponentially growing apparatus – a classical Malthusian system – had to slow down. The problem became: how could it slow down, that is, produce fewer students, without having a negative effect on scientific progress?
The answer to this question has been resolved in different ways in different fields. In physics, a field which is relatively small and coherent as a discipline, and where funding has been relatively constant over the last few decades, there was a nationwide effort by the American Physical Society to decrease graduate admissions over the period of the 1980s and early 1990s, to adjust to the fact that there were no longer enough jobs for all Ph.Ds in the field.
In my own field of life sciences – a much larger and more diverse intellectual landscape that includes everything from evolutionary biology to public health – no such agreement could be reached. The number of students didn’t simply remain constant, but, fueled by additional funds from the National Institutes of Health, continued to grow faster than the number of available jobs. Something had to give, and what gave was the length of time that students spent in training. Since I was a graduate student in the 1970s, the average time it takes to obtain a Ph.D. in molecular biology has expanded by two years, from four to over six years - and the length of postdoctoral training has extended at least that many years. This has resulted in young scientists who are in “training” well into their 30s, while their classmates from college are settling down, raising families and adding to their pension plans. I have referred to this phenomenon as the “LaGuardia effect.” Students stayed longer and longer in graduate school, as they metaphorically circled LaGuardia airport, waiting for their turn to land in a job.
Aside from the personal cost to individual students, should we be worried that 30-somethings are still in training positions? I think the answer is yes, and the most important reason comes from conversations that I have had with undergraduates at Princeton over the last ten years. Princeton attracts some of the most talented students in the world; and for those who concentrate in molecular biology, many have the intellectual potential to become world-class scientists. Yet every year they look at their options – which are infinite – and conclude that the long and indeterminate training regimen that leads to a very difficult job market simply doesn’t stack up against their other options, where the training may be long but at least they know how long, and the job prospects are much brighter. I hasten to add that this is not about money, but about a sense of fairness in the trade-off they are being asked to make between lost incomes while they train, versus the likelihood of finding the job of their dreams.
There is no surer way to strike the death knell of science than to have a career path that discourages highly qualified students from entering the field. If we continue to do this, scientific innovation and the discovery of new knowledge – which is so dependent upon the research universities – will surely be diminished and our children and grandchildren will be the poorer for it.
In my own view, it is the responsibility of universities and professional scientific societies to strike the right balance between the conduct of research on the one hand, and the education of graduate students on the other. This cannot be accomplished without paying close attention to trends in the labor market. A graduate student rightfully expects to be educated by the faculty; otherwise we should not call them students but workers. Graduate education must become more focused on what a student needs to learn in order to become a scientist, and less focused on how much they are able to produce over longer periods of time. Our 50-year-old system that links fundamental and applied research with graduate education has created the best engine for innovation and training in the world. In order to maintain that preeminence, however, we must continually attract the very best and ablest students into the profession. Paying close attention to the quality of graduate education we deliver, and to the career prospects of our graduates, we will preserve the health and vitality of this extraordinarily exciting profession.
Attracting the best and the brightest into a life in science also means having the doors as open and welcoming as possible to men, women and underrepresented minorities. Here research universities have clearly not done as well as they should in creating a culture of inclusion. There are at least four compelling arguments why we should care about diversity in science. First, if we are not tapping into the entire talent pool that is available to make a contribution to science, the enterprise will by definition be under-performing its potential. Second, I think it is possible that the scientific interests of women and minorities do not completely coincide with those of their majority male colleagues. I am not arguing that women or members of underrepresented minorities do science differently; rather I’m arguing that what intrigues women and minorities about the natural world occasionally differs from what attracts their majority male colleagues. By encouraging a broader cross section of the population to become scientists, we potentially increase the range of problems that are under investigation.
Third, science will look increasingly anachronistic if women and minorities are not participants in the enterprise. As other professions move successfully toward a goal of inclusiveness, science will appear increasingly backward-looking, and will be less attractive to talented students of all stripes. This argument is reminiscent of the rationale offered by several presidents of Ivy League universities at the time they were considering coeducation. They admitted that they were motivated by the fear that they would lose the most talented male applicants to coed schools. As a reason to admit women it may not ring with high principle, but it was a realistic concern.
Finally, it is simply unjust for a profession to organize itself, intentionally or unintentionally, in such a way as to exclude a significant proportion of the population. This is an argument based on fairness and justice.
While the 20-year track record for underrepresented minorities has been unremittingly dismal in the U.S., there are some very promising signs that women are increasingly attracted to careers in science. Over the last twenty-five years there has been a steady increase in the number of women completing bachelor’s degrees in all branches of science. In biological sciences and in chemistry, for example, women now earn 50% of the bachelor’s degrees. In the physical sciences women’s participation is lagging well behind, but the trends are in the right direction, with women earning 19% percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics and 18% of undergraduate engineering degrees.
The other good news is that there has been a steady increase in the number of women completing Ph.Ds in all of the sciences. In biological sciences women now earn over 40 percent of doctorates, and in chemistry a remarkable 33 percent of doctorates are awarded to women – a threefold increase in 25 years. In the physical sciences, 12 percent of doctoral degrees are awarded to women, and in engineering there has been a fivefold increase, from a barely detectable 2 percent in 1975 up to 11 percent in 2001.
Because of these gains at the Ph.D. level, women are entering the faculty in increasing numbers at every rank, although even today they tend to be overrepresented in the junior ranks, especially in instructor/lecturer positions, which at most institutions come with the least job security. Women Ph.Ds are also not distributing evenly across different kinds of academic institutions. They are more likely to be found at community colleges and non-research-intensive universities, and less likely to be found at research universities. Some of the skewing toward the junior ranks, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, can be explained by the infamous “pipeline.” That would argue that if we gather in another ten years, we will see further progress and eventually women will be full and equal participants in science, engineering, and mathematics. However, in my own field the historic Ph.D. pipeline cannot explain the fact that, while 45% of Ph.Ds are awarded to women, when we advertise for a junior faculty position at Princeton only 25% of the applicants are women.
This isn’t a leaky pipeline – it is a gush. How can we understand this precipitous drop, which also occurs in chemistry? One answer lies in the ways in which women scientists experience a life in science differently from their male colleagues. Over one third of women scientists and engineers are unmarried compared with 17% of men. Ten percent of married women scientists and engineers have an unemployed spouse compared to 38% of men. In a survey conducted by the American Chemical Society, 21% percent of women scientists and engineers identified balancing family and work as a career obstacle compared to 2.8% of men. These statistics vividly capture how the professional landscape for women in science and engineering differs from that of men.
They also suggest that we need to do some careful thinking about the underlying culture of universities that deters women from either entering Ph.D. programs in the first place, or persisting in the profession once they have been trained. The first, and I think by far the most important, is not unique to science but affects the ability of all women to pursue successful careers, and that is the expectation that women will take on primary responsibility for the raising of children. Obviously, women have the biological necessity of bearing the child, but after the child is born they are expected to take on the primary responsibility of childcare. Despite very encouraging indications that fathers in this generation are far more engaged in parenthood than in the past, studies such as those conducted by Professor Arlie Hochschild at Berkeley continue to document that the balance is still unequal, and that women still bear the greatest responsibility. In her book-length study entitled The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, Hochschild has shown that inequality persists even in families where both partners claim that they shoulder the work equally. And, of course, after children leave the home, women also become the primary caretakers of elderly parents. So it never ends.
This imbalance is compounded by the intensification of work expectations in all job sectors. There are many studies that document how members of the U.S. workforce are putting in longer hours and taking fewer vacations. The greater time spent at the workplace, which is coupled with increased expectations of what is required in order to do the job, is especially problematic for women who are already juggling two jobs – one at home and one at work.
The lengthening of the period of training that I discussed a few minutes ago adds one more layer of complexity to the problem by rendering some scientists middle-aged before becoming financially able to begin a family. The fact that these extended years of training coincide with prime childbearing years makes it more difficult for women to contemplate having a successful scientific career if they wish, as the majority of women and men do, to have children.
All of this suggests that the single most effective thing that a university can do to hire and retain faculty in all disciplines is to promote among students, faculty, and staff a healthy balance between family and work. At Princeton a two-year study by a faculty task force on the status of women in science and engineering has just issued its report, and at the top of its list of recommendations, right after “hire more women,” is the expansion of affordable day care facilities and the institution of tenure and review policies that allow for flexibility in the tenure clock. I would add to their list a focus at the time of tenure on quality rather than quantity. For forward momentum in science is propelled by a small number of seminal pieces of work that are creative and break new ground, not the large number of journeyman papers that fill in the cracks between those discoveries. If we reward quality and not just quantity, women will be competitive.
I have identified two challenges facing research universities in the 21st century – to ensure that the training path of young scientists and engineers is fair and focused on their education, not just on what they can produce, and to hold the doors of the academy wide open to all talented comers. These are certainly necessary conditions, but they are not sufficient to ensure that we are attracting the best and ablest students into careers in science and engineering. We must at the same time convey to students at every level the excitement and profound satisfaction that comes from making a discovery about the natural world. For those of us who have had the great privilege of spending our lives in science, it is difficult to imagine a more rewarding life. Whether watching a sunset and puzzling over the color of the sun as it fades below the horizon, or staring into a tide pool and the profusion of life forms living in harmony within it, or scratching one’s head over a contrarian result in the lab that suggests that a favorite model is wrong, it is the drive to understand the mystery of the natural world that sparks scientific curiosity.
By way of illustration, let me relate how I came to be a molecular biologist. I was a chemistry major at Queen’s University, and in my junior year I stumbled by chance on a paper in the chemistry library that described a very recent finding of two scientists named Matthew Meselson and Frank Stahl, in which they reported on the mechanism by which DNA, the genetic material, is replicated. The first thing that struck me about the paper was the importance of the question being posed, for each time a cell divides it must faithfully replicate all its DNA and deposit equivalent amounts into each of the two daughter cells. Now there was only a finite number of possibilities for how this could happen, and whether the answer was A, B or C was not what was interesting about the paper. What was absolutely gripping was how Meselson and Stahl discriminated among the options. The experiment they devised was clever, indeed elegant, and it led to an unambiguous answer. What entranced me, what so entranced me that I ran over to the biology department to sign up immediately despite the fact that I had never had a course in biology in my life, was not what they learned, but how they went about it – how they discovered new knowledge about the natural world. It was a thing of beauty, and worthy of a life’s work. And, most important, because I understood how they arrived at their answer, I never forgot it.
This lesson was reinforced for me recently when I heard Professor Bess Ward of Princeton’s geosciences department give a public lecture about an ice-covered lake in Antarctica, and its very peculiar geochemistry. She told the story like a good mystery writer, with unexpected twists and turns, and a smoking gun at the end. It was a tour de force in which she enticed an audience of scholars of English and sociology and computer science into her curious world of very cold water. She had captured the thing that attracted me into science: the beauty and mystery of solving puzzles that matter.
Our challenge as educators is to convey to our students that science is not a set of dry facts that have to be committed to memory, or a series of confusing laboratory exercises whose outcome is self-evident, but a grand adventure worthy of the likes of our great heroes, such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. Our best strategy for the future is to ignite the imagination of the best and ablest students, letting them under the tent to see our wares early in their education, by which I mean primary school. If you have ever watched a class of 8- and 9-year-olds as they looked at their first mutant fruit fly with an extra pair of wings, or a petri dish one day after they had smeared their dirty hands on the agar, or seedlings that grow straighter than others in the light, you know that you don’t have to convince them that science is fun.
We must promote and execute a version of science education within our public schools and universities that inspires rather than discourages, that emphasizes the process of scientific inquiry and not just its outcome, that makes connections between the laboratory and problems affecting us all. Only then will we be on the path to guaranteeing that the world our children and grandchildren will inherit is as progressive as the one we now inhabit, and that the work of research universities is directed toward making the world a better place.