Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Science of Progress

One of my favorite LBJ School professors has an op-ed in the paper today (it's pasted below, as well). His piece is about some concerns he has with the notion of university faculty having to bring money into their schools or departments by conducting narrowly defined research for commercial purposes. His feeling is that researchers shouldn't be licensed out like the university logo or sports mascot; that there is both intellectual and financial value to scientific research for the sake of research. Incidentally, he also wears a bow tie very well and his class was a lot of fun.

The science of progress


Planet Earth can support more than 6 billion people presently only because of science and technology. How many people could Texas support back when our technology consisted of the windmill, the moldboard plow, barbed wire and the six-shooter?

So said two of Texas's most original thinkers: Norman Hackerman, a chemist, and Walter Prescott Webb, a historian and author.

However, these two ideas are being misused by legislators and governors all across the nation.

Too often, policy makers are impatient for the rewards that are the product of scientific research. What they want is new businesses, new manufacturing, new venture capital opportunities and more jobs. And — eureka — they think they have found the solution to stimulating state economies.

Many elected policy makers would require universities to support themselves increasingly by contracting out their faculty members to corporations and government agencies. They would insist that state support for research be spent on technology transfer but denied to basic science. They would put their bets — our tax dollars — on directed research, research on specifically identified problems rather than on what they see as arcane research faculty members want to pursue. They would create ways to reward faculty members who work on applied science and translate scientific knowledge into technological uses. And they might insist that, within our universities, faculty promotions, tenure, and salaries be dependent on doing only science that can lead to stimulating the economy and helping the business community. Big bucks to reward patents, copyrights and start-up businesses but not a dime for idle research to satisfy some professor's curiosity.

What's wrong with this picture?

As Hackerman used to say, science is the flywheel of man's accumulated knowledge about nature.

Every once in a while, the flywheel throws off something that is picked up by engineers and technologists and applied for the benefit of mankind.

But to keep that flywheel spinning and throwing off useful information, new scientific knowledge has to be constantly added to it. And we don't increase the spin or source of knowledge by exclusively trying to pull on the applied technology end.

"You don't use a ballet dancer to pull a plow" is how Hackerman used to put it. You don't waste a highly trained research scientist to work as an engineer, a technologist or an applied scientist.

For instance, the discovery of vitamins and their manufacture have helped mankind enormously. Yet the discovery of vitamins came initially out of basic science research done by a man who wondered how butterflies produce and maintain their brilliant colors. Out of pure curiosity, he spent years to discover and describe the chemical and metabolic process that ended up on the flywheel of scientific knowledge.

UT vitamin researcher Roger Williams made his breakthrough by opening the secrets of chemical metabolism in animals and humans. The flywheel threw off a piece of abstruse knowledge that has enhanced the lives of millions.

Hackerman used to say that there is only one absolute certainty about investing in scientific research: When we put money into basic science, there have always been substantial rewards for mankind.

We simply don't know when we make the investment in what ways it will benefit us and in what form it will come to fruitful application. But we cannot just skip scientific research to reap only the benefits of technology.

The one mistake we must avoid is to mess with Texas by prescribing misguided rewards and punishments for the kind of research that faculties choose to do of their own volition.

Ashworth, a former Texas commissioner of higher education, co-authored 'Conversations on the Uses of Science and Technology.'

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