Archive for the ‘Faculty Blogs’ Category

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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Most people agree on the necessity of teaching ethics to science students. However, there are many different opinions about  how to do it. One typical reasoning line goes as follows: “In our discipline we have a unique, separate set of issues”. The implication of this approach is that there is a need for a separate ethics course for each field of research (e.g., one for computing, one for biology, one for chemistry, and so on). One practical problem with this approach is that it goes against the current trend of streamlining courses and budgets. But, at a more fundamental level, is misguided. In fact, it is surprising how universal are the most important science ethics issues. Across fields of scientific research the majority of ethical problems involve issues of authorship and peer review, human and animal experiments, and conflict of interest.

Indeed, a biased review of a manuscript in Geology stems from the same human faults as a biased review of a manuscript in computing or any other field of research and alas, has the same devastating effects. One might take some exception to the contention that issues human and animal experiments affect all fields, since, at first glance it would appear that not all disciplines deal with them. But in this era of “big science,”  when we often find 100+ interdisciplinary teams working on a single problem, this is less and less true. For example, a mathematician, statistician, or computer scientist who supports a biomedical team in a major investigation, manipulates human or animal data and shares responsibilities with every other team member.Hence, we find major issues of science ethics that are fundamental to all fields.Commonality and economies of scale, as important as they are, are not the only reasons for building interdisciplinary science ethics courses.

A distinct difficulty with science ethics education is that, in addition to conveying knowledge, one has also to impart the “ethics message.” For example, in a typical science or engineering course, such as one dealing with heat transfer, one can generally rest assured that a good student who received an A grade will be able to design an adequate climate control system when called upon to do so. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case with science ethics. The former student (current professional) who  scored an A in the science ethics class may know very well what the right thing to do is and yet may choose to do the opposite because it is to her/his short-term interests to do so.  The standard of success in science ethics education is at a qualitatively different level, and, to our frustration, it is difficult to measure. One could liken it to preparing a traveler for a very difficult journey yet having no no means of communication to verify that s/he has safely reached the destination. For the moment,all we can do is prepare the student as best we can and hope for  success. This preparation needs to be innovative, systematic, and comprehensive. For this reason science ethics courses need to be designed and delivered by multidisciplinary teams that include both seasoned scientists and humanities scholars. They need to deliver an honest and insightful assessment of the current state of affairs, along with a historical perspective of how we reached our current status, and provide an appraisal of philosophical/psychological issues underlying ethical issues in contemporary society. The material needs to get” under the student’s skin” and leave an emotional imprint that is likely to work as an “orthotics reflex” when the time comes to make ethical decisions as a practicing scientist in one or even in ten years.

Science ethics education cannot be commoditized or shortchanged. It requires  talented, knowledgeable instructors, a great deal of work, and passion for the subject. Unavoidably, if done properly it is also expensive. However, the alternative to investing time  and resources in ethics education is unacceptable. Even if, at present, we are unable to meausre its outcome completely, the negative effects of failing to provide our scientists with a work ethics that is underpinned by a sense of ethics and morality is too frightening to contemplate.

Ioannis Pavlidis

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