February 12, 2003: President's Page
Retreat: Science, Technology, and Engineering
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
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 insti-tutions over the past 20 years, as well as provocative articles
that predict the end of the last half centurys 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.
Princetons advantages and disadvantages. Although Princeton
has some disadvantages when it comes to scientific and engineering researchsuch
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 de-partments, 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
governments Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, the Sarnoff Laboratory,
and major leaders in the pharmaceutical (New Jerseys 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 ex-ample, that much of the federally sponsored
research would be carried out by amateursgraduate 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 Universitys
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
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 Universitys 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
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.