Science and Enterprise as a Social Good: The Role of Universities
President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 29, 2010
Friesen Lecture, Presented at the University of Ottawa
It is wonderful to be back in my home and native land once again, particularly in September, surely one of the most beautiful months of the year, when ice is still confined to our drinks.
It is a great honor to receive the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research and to deliver this, the fifth annual Public Forum Lecture. I would like to thank the Friends of Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences for conferring this award on me and for inviting me to speak to you today. I would also like to salute the remarkable contributions of my fellow Winnipeger Henry G. Friesen, whose discovery of the hormone prolactin, together with his research into its role in infertility, was a major achievement. As many of you know, Dr. Friesen has also fostered health-related research throughout this country as president of the Medical Research Council of Canada and founding chair of Genome Canada. Last but certainly not least, Dr. Friesen is an accomplished educator who has mentored scores of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, most recently at the University of Manitoba, where he was himself a student and is now a distinguished professor emeritus. It is wonderful to receive an award that has been named in his honor.
Today, I have chosen to reflect on the critical role that North American research universities play in our society, not only as purveyors of diplomas and keys to individual advancement, although that is surely our most important mission, but as forces for social good in creating economic prosperity. This is the story of an investment in the future of our people and indeed all peoples that has paid extraordinary dividends over time, but it is also the story of an enterprise that may well falter if we do not sustain our commitment to it. My story will be built around American examples, since, after spending 40 years in the United States, this is the world that I know best, but I think you will find Canadian analogues to many of the challenges that American scientists — and transplants like myself — confront.
Colleges and universities provide many social goods — from socio-economic mobility to fostering open discourse — but what I want to focus on this afternoon is the contribution that research universities make to our two nations' scientific enterprise as they channel public and private dollars into critical fields of inquiry and link this work with the education of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows — the scientists of tomorrow. In the ideal world, the new knowledge that emerges from this unique interplay of resources and talents is placed at the service of national and global goals and applied and adapted by the marketplace, yielding benefits to human health and well-being and new industries that diversify and strengthen our closely linked economies. Indeed, if one considers the 20th-century advances that have left the world a better place, they grew primarily out of scientific research, much of it conducted in research universities like my own and Dr. Munroe-Blum's. The evidence for this sweeping statement is all around us: in the dramatic increase in life expectancy and corresponding decline in infant mortality; in the virtual eradication of a disease like smallpox through systematic world-wide vaccination; in the generation of household conveniences that have freed us from punishing manual labor; in the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation; in the availability of world travel and its potential to foster greater understanding among people of different cultures; and in the development of the Internet, a powerful tool that provides global and instantaneous access to everything from the world's great literature to vacuous Tweets. A strong case can be made that at least half the growth in the United States' gross domestic product in the past 50 years has been due to advances in the sciences and engineering. Entirely new industries such as biotechnology, telecommunications, and e-commerce — some of the most powerful drivers in today's economy — grew out of research that was by and large nurtured in university laboratories, often by students and faculty pursuing knowledge for its own sake, with no commercial application in mind.
This remarkable scientific progress did not occur by chance. In the United States, it arose out of a social contract between the federal government on the one hand and research universities on the other. Although it is hard to imagine it today, prior to the Second World War, the government of the United States did very little investing in fundamental scientific research. In those days, institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation were the most important supporters of research in universities, with state and federal governments providing relatively modest funds. The war changed everything as the federal government turned to academic scientists, particularly in physics, to develop the weapons that would ultimately end the war. National research laboratories were created at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, and others that already existed were greatly expanded. The impact of academic scientists on the outcome of the war was probably startling at the time, but it helps to explain what happened next. When President Harry Truman turned to Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, to advise him on postwar science policy, Dr. Bush changed history by writing a highly influential report entitled "Science — the Endless Frontier." In it he laid out the principles by which the federal government would link its future investments in fundamental research with education, particularly the education of graduate students. By investing in the young, the system acquired a vitality, an energy, and a capacity to change continually that would make it the envy of the world.
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 graduate education would provide a lasting benefit to the scientific and technological infrastructure of the country. Although the National Research Council had been in existence since 1916, it was largely an advisory body to the government, and oversaw a number of federal laboratories without ties to universities. It was during the scientific 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 confidence that society placed in scientific progress as the path to prosperity was reflected for decades in everything from surveys that identified a life in science as among the most respected careers one could pursue to the yearly generous allocation of tax dollars to basic and applied research. In return for this broad support, society rightfully expected, and indeed received, the discovery of new knowledge that would lead to better lives for everyone, yielding what some have called the golden age of science. I wish I could stand here and simply say, "Well done! Carry on!" but, in fact, there are storm clouds on the horizon.
This is the message of a prescient American — the former head of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and chair of the National Academies' Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, Norm Augustine. In his committee's seminal report, "Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," he issued a wakeup call to anyone who believes that our prowess in the sciences and engineering is an immutable fact of life. Indeed, for him and many other thoughtful observers of the United States' scientific and technological trajectory — and here I quote from his report's conclusion — "without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, it is possible that we could lose our privileged position over the coming decades." As physical impediments to the rapid transfer of products, services, and ideas have disappeared and as countries such as China and India have dramatically increased their intellectual and industrial capital in science, it has become imperative that we in North America renew our commitment to fundamental research and technological innovation. This is a challenge that resonates on both sides of the 49th parallel, as symbolized by Ottawa's 2007 Science and Technology Strategy, designed to "maximize the freedom of scientists to investigate and of entrepreneurs to innovate," and initiatives such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation, established in 1997 to strengthen Canada's research infrastructure. In the words of the federal government's strategic plan, "Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage," "S&T capacity is more widely distributed around the world today, with countries such as China and India moving increasingly into this segment of the value chain based on their cost advantages and considerable number of highly qualified personnel. To succeed in an ever-more competitive global arena, Canada must have researchers, research facilities, research equipment, talent, and firms that are nothing short of excellent by world standards."
But to paraphrase William Shakespeare's Cassius, the fault, dear friends, is not with other countries but with ourselves. The growth in scientific investments elsewhere is something we should celebrate in this global world we live in, for the advances that will come will benefit us all. On the other hand, the worst thing we could do for both global progress and our own economic future is to cede the playing field to other countries. Notwithstanding our historic achievements, Canadian and American science faces a threefold challenge that must be addressed if our nations are to flourish in the science- and technology-driven world of the 21st century.
The first of these challenges concerns the way in which science itself is taught in our schools, colleges, and universities, though, happily, Canadians do not face the crisis in K-12 education that bedevils the United States. Arguably the most important recommendation in the Augustine report is its call for a transformation in the teaching of science and mathematics in American public schools and a new commitment to attracting the "best and brightest" to the sciences and engineering in college and beyond. Why? As Augustine bluntly told Congressional leaders last year, "America is widely acknowledged as having one of the worst K-12 education systems in the world, yet spends more on it per student than all but two other nations." Indeed, the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment placed American 15-year-olds in 23rd and 32nd place respectively among their peers from 57 international jurisdictions, well behind Canada and other countries such as Australia, Korea, and Germany. When more than half of American 12th-graders are unable to correctly draw a rough sketch of the sun and the four inner planets in relation to each other, it does not take a rocket scientist to know that "Houston, we have a problem."
Nor should it come as any great surprise that this anemic showing is having repercussions further along the educational pipeline. Students who have limped through science and mathematics with many a weary groan have little incentive to major in these subjects when they enter college, and many will even shy away from courses geared to the non-scientist. At precisely the time when our lives are being transformed by exponential strides in science and technology, the annual survey of the American freshman conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute suggests that with the notable exception of the life sciences, fewer young men and women are embracing the sciences and engineering today than in the past. In its report on 40-year trends, the institute documents the changing intentions of freshmen between 1966 and 2006, and the data are dispiriting. In 1966, 8.6 percent of respondents foresaw themselves as engineers. Forty years later, 6.3 percent did. In 1966, 4.1 percent of respondents predicted that they would pursue careers as research scientists. Forty years later, this percentage had fallen to a paltry 1.8 percent. North of the border, better public schools have not ensured that young Canadians are flocking to the sciences and engineering. Data from the 33-country Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development places Canada 20th in natural science and engineering degrees as a proportion of the total and 17th in the number of people engaged in science and technology-related occupations as a proportion of total employment.
This welter of statistics suggests that the sciences and engineering, which inspired my generation — the post-Sputnik generation — to reach for the stars, are losing their attraction for many young people. And this is a shame, not only because it weakens a major driver of progress and a significant source of our influence abroad, but it comes at a time when there have never been so many fascinating questions to explore and so many marvelous things to build — whether we are probing the circuitry of the human brain or the origins of the universe itself. What, then, can we do to prevail on a new generation to embrace these opportunities? While much can and should be done to inspire children at the elementary and secondary level, we in higher education cannot afford to wring our hands, decry the sorry state of science education in our public schools, and wait for matters to improve. Let me briefly describe three important strategies to improve on science education that we are pursuing at Princeton.
The first is to understand what motivates students to become scientists. In my own case, it began with a childhood fascination with math and a love of puzzles, but I truly started down the path to a career in science when it dawned on me that scientists get to solve puzzles that have the potential to change the world. This leads me to the conclusion that we must introduce students to the big questions that scientists are currently trying to solve early in their education. Too often, the operating metaphor for science education is a pyramid. At the bottom is a group of foundational facts — often discovered hundreds of years ago — that must be learned by heart: things like Mendel's laws of inheritance or Newton's laws of gravity. Is there anyone in the audience who was inspired by Mendel's peas or Newton's apple? These facts are often taught as a laundry list and from a historical perspective, without much effort to explain their relevance to modern problems. Only after you have successfully conquered those facts are you allowed to move up the pyramid to the next set of slightly more complex facts, and if you have the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job, you will finally reach the summit and be shown the reasons why you have been learning those facts — that they are the tools you need to solve exciting problems. I think we need to invert that pyramid and begin with the big ideas. And then we need to continually connect the facts and theories and hypotheses and theorems we teach to solving the questions behind the big ideas.
This semester I am using this approach with a group of 15 Princeton freshmen in a seminar called "How the Tabby Cat Got Its Stripes, or the Silence of the Genes," which is neither an African folk tale nor a genetic analysis of Hannibal Lecter, but a course in the wild and wacky world of epigenetics. Freshman seminars allow a senior member of the faculty to explore for a semester a deep question, often arising from his or her current research interests, with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshmen. They are considered one of the most memorable teaching experiences by students and faculty alike, but when I taught my first one in 1992, no one had ever tried to teach a Freshman Seminar in the scientific disciplines. The reason? The pyramid! Dogma held that you could not possibly engage a group of freshmen with complex scientific ideas because they were standing at the bottom of the pyramid and were completely unprepared to appreciate what lay at the pinnacle. I was not persuaded then, and I am completely unpersuaded now. These 18-year-olds, with only high school biology to guide them, are reading original papers in the literature, almost all published in the last 10 years, that explore everything from genomic imprinting in mammals to position effect variegation in Drosophila to paramutation in maize. Yes, we have to begin each class with a vocabulary lesson because of the propensity of scientists to use arcane language when simple words would do, but once armed with the dictionary, the students are able to understand the concepts and, most importantly, the ways in which scientists go about exploring big ideas. It is possible to invert the pyramid. Furthermore, they learn that scientists do not have all the answers — thank heaven! — for if we did, we'd all be out of our jobs.
The second approach that we are exploring at Princeton is breaking down the artificial barriers that separate one scientific discipline from another. Those barriers have existed on our campuses for centuries, but they are increasingly irrelevant to the way 21st-century science and engineering are conducted. The most exciting problems that scientists and engineers face today often do not fit neatly into one of the foundational sciences but, rather, lie at the interstices of multiple fields. Today's neuroscientists require familiarity with physics and computer science as much as with biology and psychology. Successful environmental remediation will need hydrologists, civil engineers, geoscientists, and chemists to work alongside ecologists. It is critical that we prepare our students for this scientific future. Six years ago, a distinguished professor of molecular biology at Princeton, David Botstein, created a new curriculum for freshmen and sophomores, called the Integrated Science Curriculum. He began by asking a group of senior faculty from chemistry, physics, biology, and computer science to meet for a year and develop a list of the most important ideas in their fields, and the scientific principles that underpin them. They discovered — to their surprise — that they had far more in common than they had thought. Using this list, they created a two-year course, co-taught by faculty from the participating disciplines, that would prepare students to concentrate in any one of those disciplines as upperclassmen, but that would approach those disciplinary studies with a broad perspective on modern science. As you can imagine, this took some doing, as faculty are loath to cede control of the curriculum to colleagues outside their own department. Nevertheless, it has worked, and the majority of the students who have passed through this curriculum have not only gone off to the best graduate programs in the world at much higher rates than we have seen before, but those programs are begging us to send them more students, as they are ready, willing, and able to embrace the interdisciplinary world ahead.
The third approach we are taking at Princeton is not new, but I am convinced it is critical for producing future scientists, and that is providing students with the opportunity to actually be scientists. There have been many studies over the years that establish a strong correlation between an early research experience and the likelihood of persisting with a career in science. In my case, it was the opportunity to engage in scientific research as a second year honors chemistry major at Queen's that solidified my own determination to pursue a life in science. I had the great good luck to work with Professor Saul Wolfe, one of this country's most accomplished organic chemists and now an emeritus university professor at Simon Fraser University. My project was to work out the conditions under which anhydropenicillin, a biologically inert molecule, could be converted to biologically active penicillin. If we were successful, the possibility was there to simplify and reduce the cost of manufacturing the antibiotic. For several months, I tried what felt like an infinite number of permutations and combinations of reaction conditions, assessing the outcome on lawns of E. coli in Petri plates to look for cell death. To this day, I can still remember the morning I opened the incubator, expecting to be greeted by the usual sight of happily growing E. coli. Instead, I saw a clearing around one filter, indicating that penicillin had been synthesized in my test tube. The hair stood on the back of my neck, my hands shook, and rockets went off in my head. It would have been impossible not to be a scientist after that euphoric moment. At Princeton we require every student to conduct research in his or her senior year and write a substantial thesis. But in truth, the earlier undergraduates enter our research labs, the greater the likelihood that they will have a transformative experience. I should add, of course, that for some of our students, the senior thesis is revelatory in a different way — they discover that they are not meant for a life in science, and that is a valuable lesson as well.
All of these teaching initiatives are intended to inspire talented undergraduates to eagerly embark upon careers in science. But this won't happen if they come to believe that the path ahead is stacked against them. This has become a major issue for the biomedical sciences in the United States, where postgraduate training has gone from a sprint to a marathon in the last 30 years. Completion times for doctorates and postdoctoral fellowships are lengthening, with the median time required for the former increasing from six years to eight between 1970 and 1995. For postdoctoral fellows, they are now the victims of what I call the LaGuardia effect — which as anyone who has flown on the east coast of the United States knows, means endlessly circling the airport, waiting for one's turn to land. The shocking consequence of this protracted time spent as a postdoctoral fellow is that the average age at which a scientist secures his or her first NIH research project grant has climbed from 39 in 1990 — hardly a number to cheer about — to 43 in 2007, and many gifted young men and women are simply not prepared to wait this long. In the words of Elias Zerhouni, former head of the NIH, "Without effective national policies to recruit young scientists to the field, and support their research over the long term, in 10 to 15 years, we'll have more scientists older than 65 than those younger than 35." Already, he noted, the NIH "funds significantly more people over the age of 70 than under the age of 30."
Pursuing a scientific career has never been a cakewalk, but as more and more time is spent in ever-lengthening preparation with only a distant prospect of scientific independence, I worry that many highly qualified undergraduates are thinking twice about investing the best years of their lives in the skies above LaGuardia. This is a loss of talent that our nations can ill afford.
The third and final challenge confronting the scientific enterprise in both Canada and the United States concerns the consistency of federal funding and thus the health of the government-university partnership that I described at the outset of my remarks. To anyone who has run a research lab, it is a truth universally acknowledged that scientific research cannot be conducted effectively in fits and starts. It needs a long horizon and the assurance of predictable support as it unfolds. Unfortunately, federal funding in the United States has been anything but stable, and at both an institutional and individual level, the consequences have been damaging. Canadian science, too, has been subject to erratic twists of the federal spigot: last year the budgets of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council were cut; this year they received a boost, though not enough to recover their lost ground. The NIH offers a prime American example of this problem. Its budget, proposed by the president but set by Congress, has never enjoyed a sustained period of stability but has been in what biochemists call a futile cycle of growth and retrenchment over the past 35 years. The last decade has provided us with a particularly poignant example of this phenomenon. Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the budget of the NIH, surpassing the expectations of even the most ardent advocates of biomedical research. The good times ended abruptly in 2004, when Congress began to tighten its purse strings to the point that the NIH's budget could no longer even keep pace with inflation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — the stimulus funding in response to the Great Recession we have weathered — brought $10.4 billion of relief to the NIH, an astounding 33 percent increase in its annual budget, but this short-term manna from heaven contains the makings of another bust in 2011. The infusion of new funds has unleashed a flood of grant applications, once more raising the prospect of an unsustainable expansion of activity followed by a sharp contraction. We can already anticipate a train wreck.
This rollercoaster, which is a direct consequence of the political budget process in Washington, means that careful and effective planning that permits the wise allocation of resources is virtually impossible. Scientific priorities that need years to nurture are initiated and then suddenly caught without essential support. During the boom years, universities respond to the increased demand for research by building new facilities and hiring new faculty, only to find that those new faculty cannot attract funding when the tide turns, as it inevitably does. This cycle has particularly corrosive effects on young investigators — or rather not-so-young investigators — who have the misfortune to enter the grant system at one of the downturns in funding.
Moreover, I would argue that the kind of science we conduct is adversely affected by the sudden appearance and disappearance of federal dollars. When money abruptly dries up, the mindset of applicants and reviewers grows more cautious, to the detriment of risky but potentially transformative research, as well as to young investigators without a well-established record of achievement. To quote one report by the American research community, "There has been a fundamental narrowing of the scientific vision, with the primary scientific query shifting from 'what is possible?' to 'what is fundable?'" This is profoundly injurious to scientific progress, which depends on daring leaps as well as incremental steps to achieve its goals.
So, what is the alternative? In the simplest terms, I would argue for a national commitment to stable multi-year funding that guarantees at the very minimum the preservation of spending power from year to year and that is responsive to national needs — for example, an emerging epidemic such as HIV-AIDS or a compelling new scientific opportunity such as sequencing the human genome. The major obstacle that stands in the way of such a policy is clearly the federal government's annual appropriation process. The United States' bicameral system of government, with power divided between the executive and legislative branches and, then, further divided among powerful Congressional committees, in no way lends itself to orderly fiscal management. Finding agreement — any kind of agreement — is a Herculean task that involves more short-term political maneuvering than long-term public policy formation. Canada's parliamentary system is much more disciplined, but changing government priorities can still be disruptive, even within a climate of strong support for research and development. As the president of the Canadian Association of Physicists noted with some relief this spring, "This year's budget represents a clear, if somewhat modest, commitment to basic research in addition to commercialization aspects and targeted research that all too often seem to push basic research to the back burner of the government agenda."
These, then, are three of the major challenges that face the future well-being of the scientific enterprise on which our nations' welfare rests. Much will hinge on how we, as scientists, respond — on the way we introduce the rising generation to the wonders of science, on the way we organize the training of new scientists, and on the way we make our case for federal support. There are no simple solutions, but as long as scientists do their part; as long as our society maintains its fundamental belief in the power of science to improve lives and promote prosperity for all; and as long as our nations' leaders take a thoughtful approach to our scientific enterprise and protect the qualities that made it such a source of economic growth and prosperity, we can look to the future, including the rise of global competition, with optimism. Let us not forget that in the second half of the 20th century, men and women on this continent created the most impressive and powerful engines for innovation and creativity that the world has ever known. The seeds of that success, rooted in our nations' research universities, are still with us, slightly battered but unbowed, and if we nurture them, as I believe we can, the golden age of North American science will not be something that my generation talks about nostalgically. Rather, we will be able to say — and say with confidence — "The best is still to come!"