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Science teaching and research in universities.


I WAS ORIGINALLY ASKED to address the compatibility between teaching and research in universities, a subject about which I can speak with conviction, enthusiasm, and optimism. However, I realized if I limited my remarks to this topic I would leave the false impression that I believed all to be well for teaching and research in universities and that I looked to the future with optimism. On the contrary, I believe there are now serious problems which will probably worsen. I shall therefore discuss first the original topic briefly and then the problems in teaching and research.

Compatibility of Science Teaching and Research in Universities

Criticisms. Research at universities is often criticized on the grounds that research scientists are poor teachers, that they are uninterested in teaching, that they devote too little time to teaching, that good teachers are not adequately rewarded, that too much teaching is done by graduate students, and that research is too costly to universities.

There is some validity to the charges. Some good research scientists are poor undergraduate teachers, and some are uninterested in teaching, but the same is true of some teachers who do no research. My experience is that there is a strong positive correlation between excellence in research and in teaching. As a student at Columbia, I had two poor physics teachers, both hired earlier just for teaching, but their knowledge and interest in the subject had dimmed. Inversely at Harvard, Ed Purcell, who won the Nobel prize in physics for the invention of NMR (Nuclear-Magnetic Resonance), is one of our best and most conscientious teachers, and Sheldon Glashow, whose prize was for a unifying theory of fundamental forces, particularly enjoys giving an inspiring core course for freshmen.

Time is a serious problem in both teaching and research, each of which is a full-time job. No matter how much time one spends in preparing a lecture, it can be improved by more preparation. On the other hand if time spent on course preparation excludes research, later teaching is almost always diminished. Balancing time between these two demanding activities is one of the most difficult tasks facing a professor. Most of us do it by becoming workaholics and spending long hours on both, to the neglect of our families.

It is true that at many universities a teacher who is unwilling or unable to do good research is poorly rewarded, but this derives from the belief that his future teaching will deteriorate. Most universities are very much concerned about teaching ability in making appointments.

Large lectures at universities are often supplemented by small classes led by graduate students, some of whom are poor teachers. However, most institutions endeavor to maintain and improve the quality of this teaching, and more should be done. Graduate students are often outstanding teachers who work hard. The undergraduate who regrets that his laboratory section is not being taught by a famous professor should realize that his teacher may be a famous professor of the future. Since most universities are now cost conscious, it is worth noting that low-paid graduate students are cost effective.

University research costs, a greater burden on the federal government than on the university, will be discussed later.

Contributions of Research to Teaching. University research attracts better scientists and teachers, encourages them to keep up to date in their subject, and enables them to convey the spirit and excitement of the field. In addition, excellent research attracts the best graduate students.

Research is essential in the education of graduate students which involves close ties between teaching and research. Experimental research students start as apprentices but soon become close friends and collaborators with their professors, learning research methods and scientific standards by experience and emulation. The students do most of the work and contribute to ideas and plans. Graduate students usually start with few interesting research ideas of their own but at the end they are full of research ideas and eager to undertake their own projects.

Contributions of Teaching to [Research. Teaching helps a research scientist to understand a subject well. Discussions with students at all levels, but especially graduate students, stimulate new research ideas as well as clarify oId ones. University research has been particularly effective in developing new ideas and new areas of research such as particle physics, magnetic resonance, masers, lasers, atomic clocks, molecular biology, and so forth.

The detailed work for most experimental research at universities is carried out by graduate students, so important new results are obtained while the students learn and gain experience.

Even classroom lectures can inspire new research ideas. The idea that led to half of my Nobel prize came this way. While worrying about my inability to produce a sufficiently uniform magnetic field for one of my research experiments, I was lecturing in class about the Michelson stellar interferometer, whose principle is illustrated by the improvement of a telescope's angular resolution when the middle of the lens is painted over with black paint, leaving just two narrow slits at the edges. As I was saying this to the class, it occurred to me that the resolution must not depend on the quality of the glass under the black paint and perhaps I could do something analogous to overcome the effects of nonuniform fields. Although different, there was some validity to the analogue, and thus the method of separated oscillatory fields was born.

Conclusion. Teaching and research in universities are compatible and mutually supportive. Teaching is improved by the presence of research and research is stimulated by interactions with students. University research has been particularly effective in originating new ideas and new fields of science, many of which have had important applied and commercial uses.

Problems in University Teaching

Costs. University costs have been rapidly rising, with heavy financial burdens falling on students, parents, alumni, and governments. These costs combined with the public resistance to them is creating an educational crisis in many states.

Education, like health maintenance repair services, police protection, and raising children, requires personal interactions that cannot easily be automated without reducing the quality of the service. Most new technologies in education increase the effectiveness of learning but not "productivity" in the sense of increased numbers of students trained per person hour of teaching. Xerographic copies of lecture notes, computer programs for learning, and the use of video tapes all increase learning efficiency, but do not eliminate the needs of students for personal comtacts. Multiple choice examinations that can be graded by computer are-sometimes helpful but do not substitute for essay discussions and complicated problem assignments. Doubling class size, increasing teaching loads, diminishing consultation hours, eliminating seminars, and so on, increase productivity but lead to loss of quality and are understandably resisted by students and teachers. In contrast, for industries like manufacturing and agriculture, productivity increases without diminished quality are possible. For economic reasons discussed by Baumol(1) and others, when sectors of the economy with high and low productivity growth rates exist side by side, the low productivity sectors will require increasing portions of national expenditures. Unless the productivity of education increases sufficiently rapidly or the public is willing to pay more, the quality of education will diminish to the detriment of society. It would be a sad anomaly for the net effect of increased productivity in manufacturing and agriculture to be a reduced quality of human life. Fortunately, as discussed below, there are some educational innovations which might increase productivity while maintaining quality of education. Vigorous efforts must be made to find educational methods of higher productivity, but personal interactions are so important to teaching that it is unlikely that the productivity growth will be sufficient. Society must therefore devise better means to divert more of the profits of industries with high productivity growth rates into low productivity activities like education that are essential to human welfare.

University costs also arise from increased administrative structure. Universities, at one time successfully managed by a president and one or two secretaries, now have an array of vice-presidents each with staffs of their own. Some of this overhead can and should be eliminated, but much is forced on the universities by well-intended and frequently desirable government regulations. It costs universities money to assure compliance with regulations for equal opportunity, building access for the handicapped, building construction and fire codes, monitoring for possible misconduct, and so forth. The recent federal law eliminating age as a criterion for retirement has unknown financial implications for universities.

Improved Teaching Improvements in teaching are necessary for both greater "productivity" and better quality. There are promising possibilities for productivity increases, such as arranging for students to teach more frequently and to learn from each other. Vigorous efforts should be undertaken to develop and evaluate such new educational methods. However, until these methods are tested and evaluated it is impossible to predict the extent of productivity increases or of quality losses. Productivity gains normally diminish teacher-student interactions and these are so important in present education that there are real dangers of quality loss.

In addition, many improvements in quality and clarifications of objectives are required in teaching. For example, in physics we are still not very successful in interesting and educating students who, as citizens, need an understanding of physics, even though their career interests lie elsewhere. Our courses for them tend to be either too dull and difficult or too qualitative and descriptive, as are many "physics for poets" courses. For example, most physics teachers are so convinced that to use physics and become a physicist the student must be able to solve quantitative problems that they assign original problems even in courses for nonscientists, to the discouragement of those with poor problem-solving ability. But the teachers need to recognize that the primary objective is to convey an understanding of physics, not to provide training in problem solving, valuable though such training is. Nonscientists can learn to understand even the quantitative aspects of physics without themselves solving problems if they are led clearly through solutions by a good teacher.

Poor Preparation of Entering Students. The poor preparation of many students graduating from elementary and high schools presents the universities with problems of providing remedial facilities and readjusting initial educational levels. However, there are large individual variations, and some of our freshmen are better educated now than ever.

Much has been written about the causes of low high school education levels. They are often blamed on the quality of teachers, whose salaries are often not competitive with those for alternative employment opportunities. But this is only a part of the problem.

A supportive home environment should provide an important good start in education, but it is often missing. Without a supportive environment, a child has only a small chance to motivate himself, and a lack of motivation carries over to future life.

Peer pressure often encourages misdeeds rather than hard work and study. I suspect that this has always been so--it was in my youth--but I believe that the pressure is now stronger and more negative, including violence and drugs and the fact that parents and schools are less effective in combatting it.

Excellent television programs such as "Nova" contribute positively to education, but personally I believe television contributes to the problems. Many young people watch television five or more hours per day so it is the dominant educational medium in their lives and subtracts from time that would be better spent in reading and studying. Programs involving violent crime, horror, and sex are definitely harmful, and all programs including even the best have one bad effect intrinsic to the television medium. Television producers are painfully aware that if their shows arc unexciting for more than a minute, impatient viewers can turn to other stations. Therefore most programs are designed to be exciting every minute and even the best science programs limit their choices of subjects to those that can be made continuously interesting. As a result young people are conditioned to receiving new information in a series of engaging one-minute increments, but many of the most important areas of science require more patience. Quantum mechanics, for example, is a fascinating subject but learning it requires time, patience, and hard work.

The importance of hard work in learning is revealed in a recent article in Science(2) describing the results of a survey questionnaire given to Japanese and American students, parents, and teachers along with math tests for the students. When asked to identify the most important factor for learning math, the American students, who did much worse on the tests, and their parents replied a "good teacher" while the Japanese responded "studying hard." The American teachers considered the most important factor was "innate intelligence" whereas 93 percent of the Japanese teachers chose "studying hard."

Supply and Demand for Graduates. Should educators attempt to limit the supply of graduates to the probable availability of jobs? At the high school level the answer is clearly "no" since in our present society almost everyone should benefit from a high school education. At the college level the answer in most cases is also "no," since the education in most cases should provide a good foundation for future life, though I sometimes worry that we may be diverting too many people from interesting and productive careers as carpenters, mechanics, and machinists into white collar jobs that are frequently lower paying and less interesting.

In specialized education with many years of training, such as Ph.D. programs in physics, the question is more difficult. It is painful to have a long investment in training end without opportunity. This is a relatively new problem in physics since for most of the past fifty years the supply and demand have been relatively well matched. But in other fields the problem has been around for a long time; for example, the numbers of Ph.D. recipients in the humanities have far exceeded the available university teaching and research positions.

It seems impossible to devise a good, reliable, and equitable method to restrict on a national basis the number of Ph.D.s to match the future demand. The future demands are not predictable and it is difficult to select equitably which well-qualified candidates should be denied the opportunity to continue their education and which universities should discontinue training graduate students. In most fields other than medicine, the number of degrees granted are not restricted by anticipated needs and the students are allowed to make their own, hopefully informed, personal decisions. Late changes in career, however, are always painful and come as a shock to those in a field where the job opportunities were expected to be plentiful. Fortunately, physics graduate education is a valuable preparation for a number of related activities such as high school teaching, business, management of the high technology equipment now used in hospitals, and so forth, but forced changes in field are painful.

Whether the number of graduate students is determined by national policies or personal choices, the decisions depend on estimates as to future needs. The estimates need to be valid for more than ten years since a young physicist typically spends six years working for his degree, two years as a post-doe and six or more years in temporary positions before finding a tenure appointment. The predictions of long term estimates by the National Science Foundation, the American Physical Society, and the American Institute of Physics, have usually been wrong. For example, in 1984 it appeared from estimates of replacements for university retirements and of industrial research needs that there would be a crisis in 1994 from the shortage of Ph.D. physicists. There is indeed a crisis in 1994, but it is from the shortage of jobs. The estimators could not foresee university contractions, federal laws forbidding the use of age in determining retirement, industrial and military contractions, and the cancellation of the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider). The unreliability of the long-range forecasts combined with long lead time for new scientists to find final employment leads to a highly unstable feedback control system between supply and demand with wild oscillations being inevitable. This is true whether the control is by the government or by the individual choices of students.

Problems in University Research

Costs. The immediate crisis in university research arises from inadequate funds for present research, let alone for expansions to new areas.

For the past fifty years most of the better research proposals, at least in physics, have been supported, even if at less than optimum levels. Now, there is a critical shortage of funds which threatens fundamental physics research as more funds are directed toward focused research. More funds are desperately needed, as well as better means of allocating them.

Focused Research. There is now much discussion of the need of "directed," "focused," or "strategic" research with the focusing aimed to "maximize the return on the public's investment in science."(3) It is indeed desirable to increase the already high return on the public's investment in science, but it is not clear that external focusing is best, and care must be taken to avoid diverting too much money from basic research. Focused research is most effective after the basic frontiers have been crossed and the direction for focusing is clear. It is no substitute for independent investigator-initiated research. The primary problem with focused research relates to the means for focusing, usually by directors of programs or committees of scientists and administrators or sometimes by politicians. But rarely is even a scientist as creative when serving on a committee or directing a national program as when he is thinking deeply about his own research. Predicting future applications of fundamental research is also difficult. I have had the good fortune of being involved with several research projects from which there were later large "returns on the public's investment." However, at the time no one thought there would be much return. During the early magnetic resonance experiments with I. I. Rabi it never occurred to us that the field would lead to NMR analysis in chemistry or to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in medicine. Likewise when developing the separated oscillatory field method for measuring basic properties of molecules, I never thought it would be used later in atomic clocks, and that such clocks would be the basis for a precision navigational system (GPS) used so effectively in the Gulf War and just now being made available to civilian aircraft and the public. I doubt if either of these projects would originally have been justified under focused research.

The promoters of focused research unfortunately also tend to favor larger organized research projects since they are easier to control and focus. However, creativity in discovery in the origination of new productive research fields usually costs much more in such large projects.

Decline of United States Industry. The industrial decline in recent years has had a major impact on university research, including reduced job opportunities for recent graduate students.

The decline of industry is the major source of the threats to reorganize research and emphasize focusing. Although United States science has been highly successful and is envied the world over, many of the financial and industrial benefits have gone more to other nations such as Japan, so it is argued that United States science must be reorganized. But that is fixing the wrong thing. The fault lies primarily with many United States industries which have excessively emphasized immediate profitability and have been less willing than the Japanese to invest large sums over many years to developing new products and improving old ones. That the problem lies more with industry than with science can be seen by noting that in recent years a number of products first invented and even initially developed in the United States have eventually been taken over and made profitable by Japanese industry, which has been prepared to invest large sums on engineering new and improved products. On the other hand few United States companies have taken over the production of new products first invented and developed in Japan. Reorganizing United States science won't solve the industrial problems but will probably reduce its creativity.

Principal Conclusions

Science teaching and research in universities are mutually supportive.

Teaching, especially of science for nonscientists, must be improved.

Since productivity grows more slowly in teaching than in agriculture or industry, costs will inevitably rise or educational quality decline.

Numbers of specializing students are probably best determined by individual personal decisions, but with governments and universities assisting.

Increased research funds are badly needed but scientists must cooperate in matching needs to available funds.

Caution must be observed that attempts to reorganize and focus United States science do not decrease its originality and effectiveness.

(*) This paper was presented at the University of Virginia Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change seminar "Teaching, Learning and Research in a Public University."


(1) William J. Baumol, "Social Wants and Social Science: The Curious Case of the Climbing Costs of Health and Teaching, " Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 137 (1993), 612-37.

(2) Harold W. Stevenson, Chuanseng Chen, and Shin-Yng Lees, "Mathematics Achievement of Chinese,Japanese, and American Children: Ten Years Later," Science, 259 (1993), 53.

(3) Senator Barbara Mikulski, "Downside to Ending of Cold War: Opportunities in Science Dwindle," New York Times, 143, no. 49 (20 February 1994), A1.
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Author:Ramsey, Norman F.
Publication:New Literary History
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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