Saturday, June 29, 2013

Professor for one year (week 11): What does University contribute to Society?

Last week, I participated in the Global Perspectives Programme, a joint program from University of Basel and Virginia Tech to foster academic exchange about Higher Education.  This year, the topic of the program was "University and Society: Meeting Expectations?"  We explored various aspects of "Society," "University," and "Expectations."  There are so many definitions and views of these broad concepts, that one could discuss hours and hours.  One aspect, however, is what university is expected to contribute to society.  Is it about providing solutions to current or future problems?  Is it about foreseeing future problems?  Is it about developing resources to be used for society's needs?  Is university urged to serve society and provide what society explicitly wants or to provide what society unconsciously needs?  So far, we wondered, what kind of solution universities would produce.

Most of the time, faculty and administration talked just about the questions we were exploring.  During our one-week trip in the US, the Basel group also visited Virginia Tech and had a vivid conversation with faculty of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).  Christopher Barrett, Scientific Director of the VBI, argued that universities would provide methods and tools to be used by society, i.e., policy-makers, to solve problems.  He emphasized that universities do not contribute solutions for current or future problems.

This statement made me wonder: At the one hand, with an attitude like this -- universities provide resources and tools to be used by others -- there is much room for basic research, i.e., research with no urgent application but that could be useful in the future.  Researchers are freed from the pressure to explicitly show usefulness in today's society.  And it makes clear that society is responsible for solving problems and for making use of the provided resources and tools.  A very comfortable statement for research, I think.

On the other hand, it reminded me a bit of the drama "Die Physiker" (The Physicists) by Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt from 1961 and the Manhattan Project (Einstein later regretted having signed the letter to Roosevelt in 1939 recommending that atom bombs be made).  And more so as Barrett told us that he had worked at Los Alamos before coming to VBI.  When universities -- or more precisely: researchers -- say that they only provide tools to be used by whomever, researchers implicitly say that they are not responsible for any outcome.  A researcher invents something, hands it over to the public and then doesn't care about how and by whom it is used. 

Although I appreciate the attitude to provide resources and tools rather than tailored solutions, I think universities should carefully state how to make use of their tools and emphasize the intended use.   Researchers should always take into account possible use of their findings -- the affordances -- and how to prevent criminal, inhuman, or warlike use.


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