I had planned to continue on today with my series about operating budgets by taking a look at some scenarios for Central Canada, but I’ve been on the east coast for work the past couple days, and so that post will have to wait. We’ll get back to it shortly, I promise. But for now, let me turn to something I’ve been thinking about lately.
One of the maddening things about many discussions that concern higher education and business is the crudeness of many popular views on their relationship. Mostly, we hear about how business’ role is to “contribute” to higher education, either via taxes, or philanthropy, or both (depending on where you are on the political spectrum). Often times, the role of business is to hire “our” graduates (and if that’s not happening then let the agonized introspection begin).
And while those things are all true, what these analyses actually miss is the true role of business, particularly with respect to science: it’s a huge, incomparable reservoir of questions to be answered, and problems to be solved. Of course, people get this at the level of applied research – by definition, when companies engage with higher education on applied research, it’s to solve specific problems – but they have trouble understanding when it comes to “pure” research. Partly, that’s due to rhetorical confusion – the wording of “pure” research (a rhetorical device of Vannevar Bush designed to keep money flowing to universities after World War II) implies that interaction between scientists and pretty much anyone else will “contaminate” research.
But a quick history of 20th century science will show you that this is nonsense. Much of Einstein’s early work was hugely influenced by being immersed in commercial technology at the Swiss patent office. Quantum physics was an accidental discovery made by German scientists who were trying to design more accurate instruments to measure very small weights. The Manhattan Project wasn’t about meeting commercial needs, but as research goes, it’s about as applied as it gets. Etc., etc.
The point here is that there are parts of commercial science that are up banging against the frontiers of the unknown just as much as university science is: just think of what was discovered at Bell Labs, or what Craig Ventner has accomplished. It’s where the rubber hits the road: where the most advanced academic science gets put into practice and tested in real-world conditions. Under commercial pressure, commercial science looks for every little advantage when learning how to cure disease, design better buildings, and develop new technology.
Even Vannevar Bush didn’t believe “pure” research happened in a vacuum. Indeed, the justification for “pure” research is always that someone, somewhere, will find an application for it. If you don’t have an inkling of where your “pure” research findings might actually be applied someday, you probably aren’t conducting your “pure” research in a way that’s very effective, because you’re not asking the right questions.
And this is the real reason universities need to engage with industry: it’s where the best questions are. And you’re not going to get top-notch research without top-notch questions.