Grand assem­bly

A sur­vey of No­bel lau­re­ates’ views on uni­ver­si­ties, science and the fu­ture is full of in­sight, warn­ings and the can-do at­ti­tudes pow­er­ing ‘beau­ti­ful minds’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LEADER - John.gill@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Ask a No­bel lau­re­ate to as­sess the chal­lenges fac­ing uni­ver­si­ties, the risks to sci­en­tific progress and any­thing else that they may lie awake at night wor­ry­ing about, and you’ll get an an­swer worth lis­ten­ing to.

Ask 50 of them, in the big­gest sur­vey of its kind, and you get a truly unique per­spec­tive on ev­ery­thing from Don­ald Trump and re­search as­sess­ment to de­clin­ing pub­lic sup­port for uni­ver­si­ties and threats to the fu­ture of mankind.

This week, we pub­lish the find­ings of an ex­clu­sive poll car­ried out by Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Lin­dau No­bel Lau­re­ate Meet­ings or­gan­i­sa­tion, co­in­cid­ing with the THE World Aca­demic Sum­mit, which is tak­ing place at King’s Col­lege Lon­don from 3 to 5 Septem­ber.

Given the col­lec­tive heft of these sci­en­tific heavy­weights (the sur­vey cov­ers lau­re­ates in science, medicine and eco­nom­ics), we de­cided to seek views on top­ics in higher ed­u­ca­tion and on a few broader issues fac­ing the world.

What’s strik­ing is that there is some con­sen­sus on both fronts. For uni­ver­si­ties, per­haps in­evitably, many of the big­gest chal­lenges boil down to money.

But there are nu­ances in the lau­re­ates’ re­sponses. Sev­eral, for ex­am­ple, iden­tify the grow­ing in­equal­ity be­tween pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and “wealthy, tax­ex­empt pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions”, as one puts it, as the most press­ing con­cern in US higher ed­u­ca­tion.

At last year’s THE World Aca­demic Sum­mit at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, Robert Re­ich, who served as la­bor sec­re­tary in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, noted that the pri­vate elite in­sti­tu­tions, with their stag­ger­ing en­dow­ments, can now re­ceive more pub­lic fund­ing in the form of tax breaks than the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties do in di­rect sub­si­dies.

And the wealth in­equal­ity iden­ti­fied in the lau­re­ates’ sur­vey is not only about fund­ing, since “at top pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, the num­ber of stu­dents with par­ents in the top 1 per cent of in­come is equal to the num­ber of stu­dents with par­ents in the bot­tom 50 per cent of in­come”, one re­spon­dent says.

Another links this to the wider is­sue of uni­ver­si­ties’ fal­ter­ing con­nec­tion with the so­ci­eties in which they op­er­ate, warn­ing that they “need to bridge all of hu­man­ity” if they are to ful­fil their mis­sions and pros­per.

If aca­demic lead­ers think that turn­ing uni­ver­si­ties into “busi­nesses” will solve their fund­ing woes, they are “wrong­headed”, one re­spon­dent cau­tions. “We need bet­ter [pub­lic] sup­port for uni­ver­si­ties, which prob­a­bly re­quires [greater] un­der­stand­ing of the value of ed­u­ca­tion.”

One in­ter­est­ing trend in the sur­vey re­sponses is that while the lau­re­ates are united in iden­ti­fy­ing de­clin­ing pub­lic in­vest­ment as a ma­jor threat to the egal­i­tar­ian mis­sion of uni­ver­si­ties, they seem less con­cerned about changes in the way that re­search is funded.

Speak­ing at the Berke­ley sum­mit, Saul Perl­mut­ter, the No­bel prizewin­ning physi­cist, said that he doubted that his re­search, which took years to yield re­sults, would have been funded at a time when a pre­mium is placed on quick, trans­lat­able re­sults. We asked the lau­re­ates in our sur­vey whether they thought that they could have made their own dis­cov­ery in to­day’s fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, the ma­jor­ity think that they could.

That’s not to say that they dis­agree that the fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment is dif­fi­cult – most ac­knowl­edge that it is. But many also say that fund­ing has al­ways been hard to come by, while some point out that their work re­ceived little or no fund­ing and sug­gest that it is down to in­di­vid­u­als to over­come such prob­lems.

“I have faith that even in the most mis­sionori­ented re­search [era], a place can be found for fun­da­men­tal re­search. And the best peo­ple know how to turn ap­plied re­search into fun­da­men­tal knowl­edge,” one says.

As for the issues that these sci­en­tific su­per­stars be­lieve pose the gravest threats to mankind, the an­swers range from Trump and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, to de­mo­graphic change and en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe.

The ques­tion is whether science can do much to di­rectly thwart these threats, and in many cases the view seems to be that it can – but only with po­lit­i­cal will and the pri­ori­ti­sa­tion of ed­u­ca­tion on a global scale.

As one lau­re­ate con­cerned about global pop­u­la­tion growth, which is set to in­crease from 7.5 bil­lion to­day to 11.2 bil­lion by the end of the cen­tury, puts it: “The pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion, lead­ing to the de­struc­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment, pol­lu­tion and mi­gra­tion [is our most press­ing chal­lenge]. It is pol­i­tics which has to act. Science can pro­vide facts.”

On another re­cur­ring theme, tech­no­log­i­cal change (with Face­book among the threats iden­ti­fied), sev­eral echo the lau­re­ate who sug­gests that “los­ing our hu­man­ist per­spec­tive as we rush into the age of the in­ter­net and its se­duc­tions” con­sti­tutes the gravest dan­ger.

How­ever, not all the No­bel prizewin­ners fear that the end is nigh. “I don’t think that mankind will suc­ceed in its ef­forts to be­come ex­tinct,” one writes.

The big­gest threat of all, then? “Com­pla­cency.”

Many say that fund­ing has al­ways been hard to come by, while some point out that their work re­ceived little or no fund­ing and sug­gest that it is down to in­di­vid­u­als to over­come such prob­lems

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