States of mind

I just filed a news story for our next print edition about First Principles: The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science, Howard Burton’s fantastic new book about the founding of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which will be published Any Day Now by Key Porter.

Mostly the book is a surprisingly funny memoir about a fairly ordinary freshly-minted physics PhD who found himself hired to run a potentially world-beating research institute with dozens of millions of Mike Lazaridis’ dollars. I read the book because I know have come to know Howard and I wish Perimeter well. The surprise was that the book is a great pleasure to read.

The passage I have reproduced below is atypical, but it speaks to some of the debates we’ve been having about government’s role in promoting science — and because it properly puts some of the burden on the people who should be advocating for robust science policy but who can’t seem to get over chronic timidity.

When federal budgets are unveiled that minimize research and education, the reaction from most leading academic administrators is invariably lukewarm, ever fearful that a strong, coherent expression of concern might result in a further diminishment of their funding. When the governments of the day, madly groping through their scientific illiteracy to formulate an effective national research policy, unthinkingly suggest the problems with universities lie in commercialization and encourage them to be more like a business, do our academic leaders give a thoughtful, measured response? Do they boldly proclaim that the risks in trying to corporatize the university are not only culturally severe — a diminishment in the value of non-directed research and unfettered intellectual inquiry that universities have vitally fulfilled for a millennium — but also largely unproductive? Do they publicly question the naive view that universities are chockful of wonderful practical ideas that are lying buried under mounds of paper waiting for bureaucrats and administrators to direct businesses to commercialize them? Do they loudly trumpet, instead, the pivotal role that a university plays in our society by training people to think — an immeasurable cultural, social and economic good? Do they engage the public directly with the question of what the role of a university should be, whether or not our system has been successful and how it might be improved?

No, they do none of those things. These are, you see, dangerous things to say: one’s funding could be cut; one could lose one’s job. If these guys want commercialization, we’ll give them commercialization. The next guys will want something else and we’ll find something for them too. Our job is to keep the taps flowing.

Of course I understand this — funding is important. But for what? That is the key question. If universities become little more than a publicly paid apprenticeship for the likes of Microsoft, shouldn’t taxpayers be paying less and Microsoft more? Perhaps we have little choice in where things are headed, but shouldn’t it at least be broadly discussed? If universities continue to increase their focus on the lucrative areas of management and business rather than concerning themselves with advanced research and exposing our youth to provocative ideas of science, history, mathematics, economics, philosophy, political theory and the like, won’t society suffer culturally, socially and, eventually, economically? Most people, I imagine, would think so. Yet many of those who whould be publicly indignant remain silent, fearful of losing a title or position they have deovted a lifetime to attaining. Who speaks for the university?

It’s easy to understand this sort of thing would be upsetting to academic administrators who didn’t go on an eight-year joy ride at Mike Lazaridis’ expense. But I doubt many would actually disagree with Burton’s diagnosis.