Archive for July 2011
A long exposure of pseudo-random-walking roombas with LEDs on top of them. If this isn’t physics, I don’t know what is. (image borrowed from flickr)
For better or worse, the successful(ish) case made for investment in science in recent years has been built around a purported contribution to economic growth. The case has been made sometimes in quite a sophisticated way, sometimes less so (and it is heartening that there is less talk these days of occasional floatations of spinouts, and more about the broader role of science in the economy), but a big part of the argument was the production of science graduates and what they bring to an economy.
Late last year, slightly unnoticed in the shadow of the Spending Review, the Treasury published its Infrastructure Plan. The plan shifted the ground slightly, counting investment in science (and particularly science-trained people) alongside the motorway network and the National Grid. Essential for the nation. (Something some of us have been saying for a long time.) The conversation was no longer about the occasional bonus, the high-value spinout, or even the WWWs of this world; it is a focus on the intellectual capital that results from investment in science, and a recognition of the importance that it has across the economy. Investment in research justified by both the people and the ideas it produces.
So far, so good.
What comes next is perhaps trickier. The higher education system, that which hosts much of the research funded by government and produces those science graduates, is undergoing an ever-so-slight transition. I don’t think anyone would want to predict how it will look in ten years’ time, but it is not unlikely that the structure of some university science departments will change. Some will keep a focus on research, others will likely put their efforts into ‘the student experience’, becoming, essentially, non-research departments.
So an old question arises: does a department need research to generate STEM graduates? If not, then one of the major loadbearing beams of the argument for investment in science and research is lost. If so, what does that mean for the departments or universities that answer the call to focus on teaching?