Phi Beta Cons

Reader Mail re: Commercial U.

I read Robert VerBruggen’s and Candace de Russy’s posts with great interest. A couple of quick points:
1. RVB: You asked in passing if there is a distinction between research and teaching. In engineering and the sciences, most of the legwork is done by graduate students, who, if I may say, are often quite green when they begin their graduate degree programs. Being engaged in a research program is essentially extended one-on-one teaching and mentoring by the research adviser. So, in that sense, research itself is part of a university’s education mission. The typical pitting of research vs. teaching is a false choice. The correct question is whether you want your faculty to spend their time teaching lots of students in classrooms, or a few in the lab. This is not an easy question to answer, involving as it does a thorough consideration of how each fits into the mission of the institution,
2. CdR: Cry not for the alleged passing of “blue-sky” research. There aren’t that many researchers who can make substantial contributions doing “blue sky” stuff, because it takes a once-in-a-century type genius to get a good ROI. For the rest of us in academic research, doing more practical problems helps us focus. The best of us try to walk the knife’s edge between making a practical (not to be confused with mundane or useless!) thing work and taking the first-principles approach that somebody in industry doesn’t have the resources to do. Playing in the practical-focus arena forces us to stay abreast of the fundamental knowledge in the areas in which we work. Combined with the publishing requirement, we have to keep our eyes out for fleshing out holes in existing fundamental knowledge, or if we’re really lucky, even starting a new area. I agree that hitching our wagons too tightly to industry might reduce freedom of maneuver in many cases, or that intellectual-property concerns can interfere with the university mission to disseminate knowledge, but these are things to iron out with optimism and an eye toward opportunity.
–MK

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