Social path through Pasteur’s quadrant

University research is an astonishing force for good in the world, argues Leszek Borysiewicz

October 3, 2013

Universities the world over have done much in recent decades to dispel the lazy but stubborn notion that our institutions are solely places of esoteric and abstract thought, conducted by unworldly dons, in gowns, over port, in towers made (as surely we would all recognise from our university estates!) of ivory. If ever there were a time that could justifiably contrast universities with “the real world”, it is long past. My University of Cambridge colleague Stefan Collini deploys an enjoyable satire that reveals the “real world” to be a construct invented by “cloistered businessmen in their ivory factories”: they should, he recommends, get out more.

Serving society – my preferred term for what used to be called the real world – is the conscious passion of everyone who works in a modern university. We do it, of course, in uncountably different ways: the institutions that appear in this publication are gloriously diverse and (let us not forget) are not trying to do the same thing in the same way. Still, the drive to serve society is a characteristic we proudly share.

Our impact on the world derives both from education and research. Cambridge is among those institutions that – though unwavering in providing an excellent and distinctive education – measure success increasingly through the impact of research.

Research is often presented as a series of irreconcilable contradictions: bottom-up versus top-down; fundamental versus applied; lone scholar versus multidisciplinary team. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and it has long seemed to me that the essence of university leadership is identifying and tending the fertile middle ground, resisting the many invitations to choose a favoured mode.

Funders of research, of course, have their own favoured modes, and such tendencies therefore matter to us. I observe trends away from shorter grants towards longer; away from individual applicants towards collaborative work; away from single-discipline focus towards multidisciplinary breadth; and away from blue-skies, investigator-led speculative approaches towards centrally defined themes to which investigators are expected to respond. None of these trends in isolation is wrong or damaging – but the net effect of their combination may be to damage the generation of genuinely new knowledge.

Tackling global grand challenges is laudable and is indeed among our core duties, but doing so relies on what Donald Stokes, sometime dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, has called “basic research with considerations of use”: the sort of work Louis Pasteur did, which Stokes contrasts both with the pure curiosity of Niels Bohr and – critically – with the applied focus of Thomas Edison. The combined trends in research funding appear greatly to favour our Edisons at the expense of our Pasteurs. As with all else, moderation is key: it is valuable for some of our researchers to be looking at this year’s grand challenges, as long as they are not all doing so.

To secure the advantages of these trends and minimise the drawbacks, universities shift strategy. For example, at Cambridge we are actively diversifying our research income: industrial partnerships, the European Union and international sources all count for much more than in the past. But where the money comes from is secondary to what it enables us to do.

Our universities set out to change the world through our research, and do so time after time. Researchers from this small city have created and now sustain Europe’s biggest high-tech hub (there are more than 1,500 technology-based companies in the Cambridge region, employing 54,000 people and generating a turnover of more than £12 billion).

They are equally impactful overseas. Two recent examples: academics from Cambridge are joining with colleagues from Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Ghana to create a programme to strengthen Africa’s capacity for sustainable research and mentoring by cultivating the talented individuals who will work at this long-term goal. Cambridge archaeologists, too, are collaborating with Turkish, German and American colleagues in the excavations – hurried, before the construction of a dam is completed and the valley flooded – of Ziyaret Tepe, a site in Turkey that may provide evidence of the world’s first multiethnic empire. It is just the sort of challenge at which universities excel.

All universities have such stories to tell, varying according to our missions, but each telling of our profound consequence for society. We must always exercise vigilance and seek to understand how the means we devise affect these ends – but my firm conviction is that university research is an astonishing force for good in the world, and that we can be proud – beyond measure – of our part in it.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz is vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge

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