Thematic Debate: "Higher Education and Research: Challenges and Opportunities"
Leader: International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU)
While early scholars saw the function of higher education as pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, today's researchers see it as going beyond that to include applying such knowledge in order to enhance, directly or indirectly, the material well-being, happiness and comfort of mankind. The utilitarian perception of the mission of higher education, the need for strengthening higher education and research capabilities of the developing world, how to bridge the gap between the natural and social scientists, and the freedom and responsibility in the conduct of research are some of the issues highlighted in this paper and opportunities for addressing them are discussed. Also discussed are the opportunities afforded by the new information technology and telecommunication system.
As we enter the 21st century, the main challenge to mankind seems to us to be how to sustain the immense contributions of research to the well-being of mankind without jeopardising the future of man.
Inspired by Cicero's statement that "only man possesses the capacity to seek and pursue truth,"1 the 19th century scholar, Cardinal John Henry Newman defined the function of the ideal university as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake:
Today the university sees its functions as going beyond that of Newman's vision to include the use of acquired knowledge in order to enhance--directly or indirectly--the material well-being, happiness and comfort of mankind. Higher education is now regarded as an institution not only for developing knowledge and training young minds, but for disseminating and applying such knowledge as well.
The 20th century will be remembered for its intellectual discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics, and for the interpretation of the structure of DNA--discoveries that have enabled researchers to unravel some of nature's secrets and the fundamental behaviour of some of its life forms. The university's utilitarian perception of its mission, now regarded with greater emphasis and urgency, has come about largely as a result of these breakthroughs of knowledge in the natural sciences. Among the consequences of these discoveries could be listed the fantastic development of information technology and high-tech industries, the increase in life-expectancy3 (chiefly because of advances in medical research and nutritional science), and increased food security (derived from genetic engineering research). In all these, the university has provided much of the leadership; with the partnership of government and its agents, industry and international agencies either as research collaborators or as funding bodies.
It is such achievements, such triumphs of science, that have led to a revision of Newman's dictum that higher educational institutions should pursue knowledge only for its own sake. Of course there will continue to be programmes of liberal education devoted entirely to scholarly study of the major works of other scholars to help clarify and possibly modify one's previously held convictions. Pure scholarship will remain with us because of the persistence of the cherished value of freedom of thought and enquiry, that intellectual value upon which the life of the university as a place of research and teaching depends. But in recent times, the immense contributions that university research has made to the national economy ironically places in jeopardy the future funding of such work. The university itself appears to be moving away from its ancient tradition of pursuing pure inquiry for its own sake precisely because of the pressures felt from underfunding.
As we enter the 21st century, it is appropriate that we discuss how this economic tension and other related problems arising from the utilitarian mandate should be tackled, so that the university will continue to serve the interest of mankind in all its manifestations.
The current triumphs of research are due in large measure to the provision of adequate financial support from government, from the private sector (through its industries) and from international agencies. The successes of the newly emerging economies in South east Asia--the present economic crises notwithstanding--provide sufficient evidence that in a science and technology-driven economy, it is the university that must be the powerhouse of the "knowledge economy."4 Now governments everywhere are expecting the university to fulfill its role as a major agent of economic growth. However, there is a price to pay for this. The injection of public funds into the university for research requires accountability that may be directed by an outside body and not by reliance upon the university's own evaluative procedures. This may impact negatively on a tenet the university holds so dear: respect for academic freedom and autonomy of choice in conducting one's own research.
In the same way, industry in the private sector is accountable to its shareholders who are typically more interested in their profits than in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Shareholders are likely to favour programmes and projects that yield immediately applicable results. The effect is that basic research will be the loser. Will the university have the moral tenacity and related resources to balance its cherished values of free inquiry and intellectual honesty? Going after government and industry-supported research could lead to long-term consequences that are not easy to predict. The challenge now is to work out ways of catering for the interests of both parties in the research partnership.
There is also the problem of research conducted outside the university. The total government expenditure for research is often shared between the university and other specialised national research institutes or centres, while multinational industries have their own laboratories for research. The conduct of advanced research is no longer solely the preserve of the university. Research results obtained in national research institutes as well as in industry may be classified and so may remain unknown to the research public, sometimes until two or more decades have passed. No longer is all knowledge readily disseminated to all those capable of benefiting from it. This situation clearly undermines the important normative principle of the universality of knowledge, a principle that is treasured by the university and by ICSU. The freedom to pursue research and to publish one's results, the freedom to communicate among researchers and to disseminate such research information--these cherished rights--are thereby compromised with predictably morbid consequences for the educational training of the next generation of researchers. How to contend with this constraint is surely a challenge that must be addressed.
These considerations indicate that inadequate funding, leading to the need to generate additional income from other sources, is one reason for the university and its researchers to move toward applied research at the expense of basic research. The need for funding has yielded the marginalisation of research motivated by a sense of curiosity generating from the intuition and the sheer intellectual power of individual minds. Yet fostering such work remains one of the basic missions of any higher educational institution, perhaps all the more so during times of socio-economic crisis.
Prior to the demise of one of the superpowers, national agencies used to support basic research principally for its potential applications in the military and in commerce. But now they have less reason to invest in it. Yet everyone recognizes the economic and social benefits of basic research: it produces background knowledge, it develops research skills, new techniques, instruments and methods that in turn yield economic benefits over a much broader range of production sectors.5 Also there is a symbiotic relation between basic research and technology, with each moving ahead increasingly faster because of the impact that one has upon the other.
Thus inadequate funding for basic research has an immediate deteriorating effect not only on higher educational institutions themselves but on national economies. We need to continue to create the necessary infrastructure for basic research "to fulfill its mandate as a creative manifestation of the human spirit."6
Information technology has proven to be a powerful aid to the researcher; but its potential has yet to be fully exploited. Its recent forays into the higher education industry, through the establishment of the 'Virtual University', has led some to forecast the demise of the traditional university structure as it is presently constituted. This is because of the several advantages the 'virtual university' has over the traditional one: it encourages collaboration between universities and staff in distant locations; it affords the ready availability of first class libraries to students in varied institutions; and it is an excellent tool for cutting down costs.
Is the university as a spatially clustered community of researchers and scholars consequently an endangered species? The answer clearly depends on how narrowly one insists upon defining 'a community of scholars'. All that the Internet is encouraging is the possibility of providing at lower cost the capacity to unite spatially disparate people. In this way, it enlarges the research community to include those outside one's physical neighbourhood, so that people with shared interests can interact while working in different places on the globe.These are exciting possibilities of which even Cardinal Newman would have approved. We need to explore these advantages further.
Newman stated that "if a practical end must be assigned to a university course, then .. it is training good members of society."7 The applications of some research in science and technology have proven extremely hazardous to humanity. This utilitarian criterion--the mandate to apply knowledge, to pursue dominion over the earth--is plagued with danger and measures should be put in place to protect mankind and our environs. Currently, questions are being raised concerning the desirability and even the purpose of some of the research carried out in higher educational institutions. For although these institutions provide the technical tools of civilisation, they do not at present provide any guidance for their use. They are neither interested in ultimate ends nor can they predict ultimate consequences. The English mathematician G.H. Hardy once wrote:
One may wonder whether Einstein felt the same way with his equation: E = mc2. It is certainly no exaggeration to claim that it was the applications of relativity and quantum mechanics that reshaped the world both for better and for worse. No pure or basic researcher can predict what others will do with his results.
Typically, researchers are now faced with questions concerning the consequences of their work: what will be the consequences of biochemical weapons research for future generations, or of nuclear waste disposal, or of human cloning and other genetic experiments? How can our planet be saved from the current as well as for the future generations? Here we are dealing not just with technological and ecological questions but with moral dilemmas as well. The university cannot remain wholly indifferent to all values other than its cherished prizes of the search for truth and for funds, important though these quests may be.
The "good members of society", duly trained by the university, should "go into life conscious of the deeper issues at stake and of the values involved in them."7 Truth and its applications must be pursued with responsibility, and it is for this reason that ICSU has created a Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science, charged with the duty of helping to find solutions to problems concerning ethics and responsibility in the conduct of science. ICSU aims to ensure that the contributions science makes to humanity will be for our common well-being and for humane social progress.
For, without such ethical vigilance, the distrust that some of the public currently has about science will most likely intensify at great cost to the progress of science. It is the challenge of the researcher to ensure that the two values of freedom and responsibility in the conduct of research are kept in their proper perspective, if the researcher is not to encourage the rejection of progress or modernity as an item of reactionary dogma.
In his Metaphysics, Aristotle claimed that all men by nature desire to know, and in most cases they also desire to apply their knowledge. It is because of man's insatiable desire to know and to apply his knowledge that institutions of higher education exist at all. The economic progress that industrialised nations have enjoyed was hastened because of the existence of the relevant indigenous capability in a social environment that nurtured scholarship. The gap between the developed and the developing worlds, which is widening at an increasing pace, will be narrowed only if the necessary infrastructure and local supports for high education and research exist within the developing world. While most governments of the developing countries are facing serious economic crises, in the long run it will be to their advantage if a reasonable percentage of their GNP provides the resources necessary for the promotion of quality higher education and capacity-building in research.
The advanced countries can also contribute in the effort to create an indigenous base for research by helping to equip researchers of the developing world for full participation in knowledge-based socio-economic development. Working as a researcher in a less than sound environment, with few exceptions, means working in complete isolation. Having himself experienced such loneliness while working in his own country, Abdus Salam, of blessed memory, inspired by John Donne's remark that `everyman's death diminishes me, because I am part of mankind', worked hard to try and break the scientific isolation of researchers especially in the Third World. Using his influence and prestige he was able to set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (now named after him) in Trieste, Italy. There scientists of the Third World get the chance to interact with their colleagues from the industrialised world while at the same time they continue to contribute to the capacity-building of scientists in their own countries. This world will be a better place for all if such institutional experiments could be replicated in other research areas. For as Salam once wrote,
The challenge, then, is for the world's community of higher educational institutions and researchers to make Salam's hope a reality, by finding ways to build bridges between the worlds of North and South, First and Third, men and women. The challenge is to ensure that all scientists, irrespective of where they might find themselves, will be suitably positioned to contribute their best toward solving the world's complex problems, thereby giving substance to the international nature and universality of knowledge.
The curricula of some of the most well-known universities encourage too early a specialisation for the student. A science student specialises in the study of nature but not of man; student of the humanities concentrates upon man, to the complete neglect of nature. The result is the existence of what the British novelist C.P. Snow called "the two cultures." Some policy makers are students of the humanities with little or no interest in how the technological gadgets that they regularly use came about. Similarly, some scientists are hardly conversant with the appreciation of poetry or art or music. The public will better appreciate the work of the researcher if he has been prepared with an understanding of that public in all its dimensions.
Indeed our educational system should be guided by the scientific worldview that has emerged in this century, that is, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that states that there exist several mutually exclusive but complementary approaches to reality, since nature and society are too subtle to be described from any single viewpoint. The education of the scientist should include training in the social sciences, and that of the social scientist should include training in the natural sciences, so that it is possible for them both to apply their fullest potentials to national life and development. One of our challenges as we enter the next millennium is to establish meaningful and extensive dialogue across and between disciplines to deal more effectively with some of the outstanding questions in the arts and the sciences.
We are about to enter the 21st century unable to reconcile two of the major discoveries of the 20th century, quantum theory and the theory of gravitation. In this respect, we are reminded of the dilemma faced by the 19th century researchers between Newtonian mechanics and electromagnetism. Its resolution in the early part of this century set the stage for some of the advances in knowledge already referred to. Are we to witness in the next century a synthesis of quantum mechanics and Einstein's gravitation theory? And what impact will such a feat have on mankind should research succeed in the endeavour? Will history repeat itself? We look forward with interest to the answers.
Without doubt, the major problem 20th century research has created is how to sustain development so as to "meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of the future generation."10 As is well-known development is closely linked to environmental change. Two major causative factors have been identified as responsible for the degradation of the environment, with serious implications for the future of planet Earth. These are the increased consumption patterns and life-styles of the affluent industrialised countries, and high population growth rates in the developing countries. Sustaining these life-styles and catering for the minimum needs of the global community have led to a considerable pressure on our natural resources. For example, energy sources are among the vital ingredients for economic activities as well as for people's daily lives. Fossil fuels which are the principal source of energy are responsible for heavy damage to the environment, contributing to the increase in carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. They are also a non-renewable source of energy. And yet energy consumption in the world is expected to increase. And so, in order not to compromise the needs of future generations, the challenge to the researcher whether at a higher educational institution or in industry is to either identify alternative sources of energy which are renewable and are environmentally-friendly or, if we are to live with non-renewable sources, to find ways of decreasing the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuels.
How to achieve population stabilization has to be considered not only from a purely economic point of view but from human and cultural aspects as well. Happiness in some cultures means having many children while in others it is having one or none at all. All researchers, social and natural, basic and applied, have a role to play in our attempt to encourage a globally applicable plan for sustainable development.
Research on the management of the environment, is global and interdisciplinary. Fortunately, meaningful cooperation and collaboration is now possible because of information technology. We need to take advantage of this very useful technology.
No doubt, the 21st century will raise even more problems but in the midst of difficulties lie challenges and opportunities. In all our deliberation, we need to ask ourselves what sort of human society we want to build in the next century; it must surely be one dominated by science and technology, but which engages the participation of all researchers. In all our endeavours we should let the following admonishing words of Einstein be our guiding principle for the next millennium.
Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours; concern for the great unsolved problems of the organisation of labour and the distribution of goods in order that the creations of our minds shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.11