Tuesday, April 29, 2008

New Research Funding at ND

Woo hoo, Notre Dame is going to commit $80 million to new research initiatives! Alright that will make our "aspirational peers" take notice.

Sure. In our dreams. I know that some of you don't like this idea of research being the hot new thing on the fourth floor of the Dome, but it's here and we are going to have to deal with it. Unfortunately JJ, TBur and this new guy Bernhard are going down the wrong path. I don't dispute the merit of the projects that were chosen, honestly I don't know if they will raise our profile or not, but this whole process smacks of misfounded desire and inefficiency.

The wider world has been enamored with this idea that a research university is the best university. That's the way to raise the profile of the school. Even Atlantic Monthly which ranks schools based their contributions to the country uses research expenditures as a metric. I honestly fail to see how half the dead end research at Oklahoma State is as much a contribution to the country as say TFA volunteers. For that matter, Atlantic uses Peace Corps volunteers as its service metric. Yeah missed how that one involves contributions to THIS country, other than theoretically helping our rep abroad - I mean who cares about the millions of people in this country who are in need? But I digress. Prestige hawks love liberal arts colleges, which do practically no research, but shun universities that don't do top 20 research as academic misfits and unworthy. Since Notre Dame was orignally an LAC, maybe we should go back to that and see if our ranking increases (probably not, academics hate Catholics anyway).

First, do we really need this stuff. I mean a think tank that will engage Catholicism and modern knowledge sounds like something that Notre Dame should have, but if you are trying to raise your secular profile is that what you should invest in?

$80 million could fund dozens of endowed professorships and scholarships, which would pay off in the long run versus these one time (or two time) injections. We would be better off investing in our research base than in research itself. They try to play up the $90 million worth of external research funding that we receive, but that doesn't even put us in the top 100 schools in the nation, and unless that number is at least tripled we are never going to be invited to the Association of American Universities. And even if we an pull that off, I doubt that JJ will be around for it. Despite his ambition I don't think he can walk this line long enough to see us to the "promised land." If we want to be a research powerhouse, then we need to have the facilities and the faculty to compete for peer reviewed federal dollars, we can't fund it ourselves. There is the old story about a UPenn professor that ND was trying to recruit, he loved the place but his complaint was that he had in his own lab back in Philly all the instruments that Notre Dame had on its entire campus. And who can blame the guy? Professors want to win Nobel Prizes and they can't do it at ND with our current research base. Stinson-Remick, with its nanotechnology center, will help no doubt. But it will take more than that for ND to be competitive. Imagine the research facility you could build out next to the library with $80 million, and with the left overs you could probably build a parking garage to alleviate our parking problems. Just a suggestion.

Overall this isn't a bad thing. But we could do better if we took more innovative approaches to becoming a better university.


Tom B. said...

Didn't we make some pretty impressive innovations in science when we were dirt poor? I'm thinking of synthetic rubber and something with wireless communicators.

Also, I wonder if having all of this technology ties you to it and keeps you from being as freely innovative and imaginative as your mind would let you. But I know next to nothing about scientific research. Anyone?

Christina said...

Personally, I support research funding at Notre Dame, because that money makes it possible for me to do my graduate work at ND! :)

I will be starting a Ph.D. program in engineering in the fall. When I was first looking at grad schools, Notre Dame was not really a place that I ever would have thought of as somewhere to do cutting-edge research. I was familiar with it mostly as a liberal arts school. But the department had projects I was interested in, professors I wanted to work with...and of course, the money to fund me.

I guess as a total stranger I really don't "get" the opposition to research at ND. To be honest, as a beneficiary of said research initiatives who also happens to be Catholic, it's making me feel a little unwelcome. I can already sense that my non-cafeteria Catholicism is not really going to make me a hit with the other grad students. Is my status as a scientist going to make me part of some evil plot to subvert Notre Dame's mission? :/

I can understand the fears of it taking away from undergraduate teaching. But I did my undergrad at a smaller state school that balanced research endeavors with a real commitment to teaching. I see no reason why Notre Dame could not be the same way.

Also, I wonder if having all of this technology ties you to it and keeps you from being as freely innovative and imaginative as your mind would let you. Innovation and imagination have their place in science, but I can't use my imagination when what I really need is a scanning electron microscope! ;)

If we want to be a research powerhouse, then we need to have the facilities and the faculty to compete for peer reviewed federal dollars, we can't fund it ourselves. I do agree with this comment. The big money is in external funding. And I also agree that projects funded internally should be wisely chosen.

Kelly said...

This is going to be a bit scrambled because I am currently in an Orgo review session, but this is one of the few "campus issues" that I feel like I know enough about to voice an opinion.

I've been privileged enough to work in an incredibly well funded research lab for the past three summers at another university (mmm talking about several grants that are along the lines of 5 million spread out over several years). This center is at a University, that by no standards is a great research university, but they are actually getting up there, starting to steal professors away from Penn... This external money is brought in by extensive grant writing. If we want external funding (and we really do need to work on that), then the professors have to start coming up with ideas that will appeal to NSF, to the department of Defense, the Army and the Navy and other groups that have a lot of money in their control.

If you want to become a premiere research institution then you have to aggressively go after the funds out there, and specifically, the university needs to hire people who will do this. You need to bring people in who are publishing like mad and constantly pushing new projects. I happened to work for a Prof in the Physics Dept who hasn't put out a paper in years- her grad students have been there for something like 5-7 years with no end in sight. She is stuck in a disgusting rut, not because she has crappy equipment, but because she doesn't have the fire.

What interests me is whether or not we can both hire incredible profs, who are passionate about teaching and research, turning students on to their discipline, and at the same time hire profs who are passionate about the faith... Is the current dichotomy a product of the existing typecasting of Universities (ie how they label and identify themselves as "research" or "catholic" or "orthodox") or is it inherently impossible for a great research prof to be a great Catholic? Are there more Fr. Nieulands out there?

Rachel said...

Great comments all around.

I think what we all can agree on is that ND has something unique to contribute to the world at large, in whatever fields her students and professors choose to work.

As far as the undergrad research perspective goes, I think that it varies quite a bit based on a) what you want to do with your life, b) whether you are a graduate student or an undergrad, and c) whether you work in the sciences or the arts & humanities.

I think I could summarize my own dissatisfaction with the increasing research focus in arts & letters as leading to a narrowing of focus too soon in one's academic career. ND should try to provide a broad-based education, something which many of our 'peer institutions' have given up on, annulling any and all distribution requirements. I sometimes wonder if I have gotten the best, broadest education possible--a more catholic (ie, universal) one that is necessary for me to ground my own thought in particular areas. Again, it's going to be different for a science major who wants to go on to be a research biologist...

I would say that I'm not categorically against this 'modern research university' thing...I just think that we might be rushing headlong into these 'modern research' endeavors without recognizing the path which they are leading us down. I think it's sketchy if they are taking us anywhere but to some mode of thinking which is authentically Catholic.

The contributions ND makes to academia should be categorically different from those made at secular universities. We have Christian values and a radically different vision of the human person, and the human person's relationship with nature and with his neighbor. Whatever ND scholars contribute to their fields should not lose sight of the Catholic mission of the University--and I think that's what we're all afraid of.

Anonymous said...

Oh my God, you undergrads at the Rover are so IGNORANT. Professors, graduate students, and institutes here are so UNDERFUNDED. This prevents us from doing our research adequately. This money is just enough to help a few projects go forward. We need more to continue our work and recruit other professors and graduate students.

You mention other possible uses for the money. Well, this money was DONATED for a specific purpose, and future monies will be given for similar projects you mention in this post.

You guys seriously need to rethink what it means to be a university. Not every scientific research initiative must deal with some issue in the Catechism. This place is not just for undergraduates. Grow up and get over it. Undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research is here to stay and it must increase.

Christina said...

While I think I won't take the hostile tone of the anonymous comment above, I do have to say that Notre Dame is in a very unique position as far as Catholic universities go. It is one of only a handful of Catholic universities in the US where I could pursue graduate work in my field. Most of the others are only nominally Catholic - I hear a lot of talk about how ND has started the downward slide, but I don't think it's that bad yet!

Most Catholic colleges are just that - colleges, liberal arts schools without the funding or facilities to take on scientific research. Those are great for the Catholic students who want to pursue liberal arts degrees - but what about those of us who find our calling in physical sciences or engineering? In my mind we need more Catholics in every field of study, not just theology and philosophy. Who is going to train these Catholic academics, if not Notre Dame? The secular universities can be lonely places for people with any kind of religious belief, let alone Catholics.

Another commenter said, "...is it inherently impossible for a great research prof to be a great Catholic?" My answer is NO! I aim to be both some day - a very tall order, I know. Notre Dame has the resources to train scientists who do top-notch research AND are serious Catholics. This would really be a unique contribution! Notre Dame should fund research, not to gain prestige (U.S. News rankings are highly overrated), but for the sake of filling that gap.

Balance is key. Growth is usually painful, and not always pleasant. I hope the leadership there can find a solution without sacrificing Notre Dame's Catholic identity. I believe it is very much possible.