Yale president stands up for the blue skies

Richard C. Levin says Truman-era principles have profound lessons for the future of research funding. Phil Baty reports

February 2, 2010

As UK academics grapple with demands to predict the future impact of their research to secure funding, the president of one of the world’s leading universities has launched a passionate defence of curiosity-driven scholarship.

Richard C. Levin, president of Yale University, said in a lecture on 1 February that it is essential that governments properly support fundamental research with no obvious short-term economic impact.

Although he was speaking in general terms, he said the principle held an “important lesson for Britain – given current discussions”.

The UK’s seven research councils now ask academics to describe the potential future impact of their research when they apply for funds, and impact will form part of departmental scores in the forthcoming research excellence framework.

Professor Levin gave this year’s Higher Education Policy Institute annual lecture, “The rise of Asia’s universities”, at the Royal Society in London.

Addressing the attempts by nations such as India and China to create world-class institutions to compete with the universities of Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and other members of the traditional Western elite, he said it was essential that nations created an “efficient and effective system of allocating research funding”.

He said the basic principles set out in a “brilliant” 1946 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, by Vannevar Bush, the Science Adviser to President Harry Truman, were still relevant today.

The report found that “the economic gains from advances in basic science often do not accrue for decades and often yield results in applications that were entirely unanticipated at the time of the scientific breakthrough”.

Because the economic benefits of pure science are hard to predict, Professor Levin said, “private enterprises will typically have insufficient incentive to make many socially productive investments. Government must take a lead.”

Professor Levin said there were three key principles set out by Bush: the federal government should bear primary responsibility for funding basic science; universities – rather than government-run labs or private industry – should be primarily responsible for carrying out this government-funded research; and that “although the Government determines the total amount of funding available in different fields of science”, specific projects and programmes should not be assessed on political or commercial grounds, “but through an intensely competitive process of peer review in which independent scientific experts judge proposals on their scientific merit alone”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Levin said that the Bush document was “amazing” and “fabulous”.

He added that blue-skies research was vital.

“Had we not undertaken projects in the 1960s and 1970s in fundamental areas such as DNA, lasers and so on, we would never have reaped the harvest 20 to 30 years later.”

His lecture concluded that Asian nations were well placed to realise their “audacious” goal to build a small number of world-class universities.

“If emerging nations of Asia concentrate their growing resources on a handful of institutions, tap a worldwide pool of talent and embrace freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry, they have every prospect of success in building world-class universities,” he said.

“It will not happen overnight; it will take decades. But it may happen faster than ever before.”

phil.baty@tsleducation.com

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