How basic research is being ruined by business

Nothing like a controversial headline to catch attention.

About 12 years ago, I presented at UNC during an industry-sponsored conference.  Among my comments were those that, although the audience didn’t cringe, my colleagues from other firms sponsoring the event did.  Not only that, but I swear, if their eyes could throw darts, I would have been a pin cushion.  Anyway, my comments pointed out the negative aspects of industry-funded college research.

In simplistic terms, there are two kinds of research – basic and applied.  Basic research is that hard core work that is done for the joy of science.  You can’t see a payoff at the end of the rainbow and there may never be one. It’s all about discovery.  But then again, it could be the next huge payoff like penicillin or the MRI machine.  The point is that it’s a risky investment and not one made by too many companies.  Traditionally, this work has been done by both government labs and universities and colleges.  Applied research is also done by both of these organizations along with many businesses.  The difference is that applied research takes a discovery and engineers it so that it can have “application” somewhere.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a great example.  The basic research was done about 30 years ago at several different universities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_resonance_imaging).  But taking the “discovery” of magnetic resonance and building a machine for medical purposes (applied science) was done by several companies who saw a potential return on that investment.

Anyway, my point was then and still is, that businesses are ruining basic research and the core fundamentals of education that made the US and many other countries so strong.  OK, that’s a bit strong but I wanted to get your attention again.  In the pursuit of corporate funding (to help keep down their costs), many universities are eschewing basic research (with no discernible payoff) for applied research that firms will fund.  In addition, it “makes the students more employable.”  Unfortunately, I agree.  It helps make college more affordable for many and it does help students get jobs. But at a cost.

The government labs are under many of the same pressures.  Who wants to see their taxpayer money go for some seemingly esoteric project around deep space exploration when it could fund something with a more immediate payoff like increasing vehicle fuel efficiency?

Let me take it one level lower.  In my town, I was very active for a while on the Chamber of Commerce including being a member of the Education Committee.  The local high schools are eager to turn out students with quick employment opportunities – not unlike colleges.  We have experienced a huge “brain drain” of the young fleeing the area for at least two decades now. And the schools are under pressure to deliver results. However, at one high school here, they have instituted what is called an “academy” system.  In this system, entering ninth graders are made to choose which “academy” they will specialize in.  For example the “Academy of Business Management” or the “Academy of Information Technology.”  In these academies, the students’ schedules are driven by taking courses that meet the requirements.  And here is where I have a problem. Do you know many 15 year old who knows what they want to be in life?  Most people change careers at least twice in their lifetime and we are asking high school freshmen to pick.

I argued often and vociferously that all of my colleagues supporting this system didn’t understand what made their best employees – someone who is well-rounded, understands math and science, has read Shakespeare and Sun Tzu, can hear a Vivaldi piece and appreciate it, knows that baking instructions are important because chemical reactions need to happen (I always screw that one up!), and more.  The point is, the best employees often are the ones with an all-around education; not someone who specialized at age 15.

Now the tie back to basic vs. applied science.  The story is the same.  In our educational system, we are putting a quick payoff in front of what may be educating for the better good of society.  How are we ever going to beat say the Koreans in global math scores if we only teach math as a method to an end and not just for the pure pleasure (and maybe basic science) of it?  (Nothing against Korea; I’d love to visit someday.  Plus I like their food and I really like MASH.  I’m just using them as someone who seems to be doing math education correctly).

Anyway, this is not an easy topic.  Education is a passion for me and I push my kids to do their best.  I buck the system when they teach to “do well on the test” and not for learning purposes.  I have served about 15 years on various elementary school councils and hate to see early education where reading is critical, pre-empted by tests and “applied science” with a short term payoff.  Some things don’t have a quick ROI but are worth the investment anyway.  And our society needs to realize that and suck it up.

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