Archive for July, 2012

What does research mean for this country? Why does it matter?
Research created the wealth of this country and secured its survival in critical times. Imagine where America would have been without the telephone, the airplane, and the personal computer. Consider what would have happened if during World War II Germany’s research arrived first at a nuclear weapon. Research is existential to the United States.



What forms of, topics, or fields of research matter most?
This changes with time. At the moment biology, energy, and computing are the most important research fields. We are also witnessing the genesis of multi-disciplinary research at a scale not seen before.



What country is in the lead currently for research?
Overall the United States remains the lead. However, its lead has eroded and in specific fields has receded altogether. I find worrisome the loss of lead in engineering research. In contrast to other countries, no grand engineering projects have taken place in the United States the last quarter century. At the same time the country has been de-industrialized. An entire generation of engineers has grown up in a culture of small projects and saw the prestige of their profession diminished. It will be difficult to recover from this.  On a positive note, the United States maintains a healthy lead in biomedicine, computing, and defense technologies.



How can this country keep up with others in research?
A) The amount of federal funding for research needs to increase. Subtracting inflation, this amount has remained stationary at best for a number of years. Federal funding for academic research has become doubly important after the 1990s, when long-term research in American corporations has either subsided or collapsed.
B) Federal funding agencies such as NSF and NIH need to restructure their research agendas. They have too many small programs. While they need to maintain some of these, more funds need to be directed to large scale multi-disciplinary research programs that are capable of shaping the future in one broad stroke.
C) A grassroots attitude change is needed. Science and technology need to inspire young Americans again and draw them professionally. The country cannot afford diverting it’s top talent to Wall Street  in perpetuity.  Everybody needs to understand that science and technology create the real economy upon which healthy markets can grow and not vice versa. Perceptions are very important and to a large degree they are created by the media. Sometimes I wish Hollywood would create a glamorous TV series about lab life and not just courtroom life or boardroom life.



What about UH? Have we contributed to the country’s strength in research?
UH belongs to a new breed of state universities that are on an ascending trend and  I expect them to slowly regenerate the American academic system . If you take the U.S. World Report and map the top 50 Universities, you will find that almost all of them are in the Northeast from where the country started 250 years ago. If the same static picture applied in the corporate world, the economy would still be dominated by the 19th century railroad barons. This is not healthy and is characteristic of inbreeding.  One of the things that need to happen to propel research in the 21st century is to “deregulate” the American academic market.  Powerful technological developments and historical forces may take care of this soon (see next Q&A).



What improvements do you think are necessary for the nation to have a competitive edge in research?
All of the policy directives and social attitudes that I mentioned earlier would help. Irrespectively of such deliberate moves, I expect the research environment to be spontaneously reshaped by a cataclysmic change that is about to happen in academia. This year a number of universities, including Harvard, announced that they are putting their coursework online for free. Gradually this trend will transform undergraduate education. Nobody can predict with certainty where this is heading,  but when the dust settles the transformation of the academic system may be similar to that  brought in the software industry by the App Store. The current University business model that is heavily based on undergraduate tuition is likely to change. In the long run I doubt if departments, as we know them, will survive in this new era. The graduate school and research, which cannot be commoditized and traded in the Internet at competitive prices, will acquire greater importance and possibly structured around major interdisciplinary centers and labs with incubating capacity. Universities that have the foresight to see the inevitability of change are trying to ride the wave as it is being formed. Soon it will be high surf time for both higher education and research.


Follow the complete article by Ashley Anderson in The Daily Cougar.

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