We Need More Renaissance Scientists

Integrating humanities and sciences enhances graduate education

To paraphrase White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s now legendary quip, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” you should never let a serious spending spree go to waste, either. By that, we mean President Obama’s pledge to increase research and development spending, in particular on post-secondary education where a lot of money will target expanding Ph.D. programs.

The president asserted a widely held truth, that developing more science and engineering talent “will foster home-grown innovation, help ensure the competitiveness of U.S. technology-based businesses, and ensure that 21st century jobs can and will grow in America. But caution is in order.

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With new programs and new money in play, this would be a good time to pause and ask whether the proper “infrastructure” is in place at universities today to achieve the central–most assuredly vital–goal of producing more innovators.

The U.S. has fabulous basic educational resources to work with. Some rankings place the U.S. with nearly half of the world’s 100 top universities, but the plain fact is that we do not have in place the right educational infrastructure to achieve the president’s goal.

Our graduate system is been drifting in the wrong direction if we want more innovators. Before accelerating it with more funding, why not address now what needs fixing? Otherwise, we risk doing the equivalent of spending money on highway infrastructure hoping to stimulate rail travel.

More money will likely stimulate more students entering the myriad technology disciplines where most economy-transforming innovation has come from, and will come from yet. Boosting enrollment in science and engineering programs, however, addresses only half of the issue. The other half is ensuring skillful innovators emerge from the halls of academia.

What’s the problem? To put it simplistically, if unkindly, we are producing too many engineering Ph.D.’s that think with half a brain. Innovation requires the whole brain. Our educational infrastructure is radically biased toward half-brain outcomes.

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It is no mystery that science and engineering encourage left-brain activity; logical, rational, analytical, pattern-seeking, solution-solving, sorting, organizing. Innovation, however, requires the attributes of the humanities found in right-brain thinking; creativity, artistry, intuition, symbology, fantasy, emotions.

Fifty years ago, scientist and novelist Charles Percy Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture, lamenting the impediments to solving global problems created by what he called a communication breakdown between the “humanities” and “sciences.” We have, in many ways, made the problem worse since C.P. Snow pointed it out in 1959, but our universities can reverse the trend.

An educational system (infrastructure in today’s parlance) that merges humanities and sciences, creating whole-brain scientists and engineers, yields more than just innovation but more flexible individuals who are able to adapt to unanticipated changes in the economy and technology. They can take their technical skills on tangents to innovate in new areas.

Such skills provide a wealth of opportunities for those who acquire them, for their future employers and for the nation at large. To be sure, researchers can not only get away with, but critically depend on their half-of-the-brain approach. It’s not that we don’t need more researchers (or collaterally, more technically-literature left-brain thinkers), but we desperately need more builders.

History is replete with examples of whole brain thinkers, sometimes termed “Renaissance” men or women, innovators, builders or creators. Generally, by their very rarity, they are the exceptions. There is no magic to produce more of such. It’s easy to see why the existing system encourages the opposite.

Nearly all undergraduates pay for their education, while most doctoral students in engineering are paid to go to school. The money for the latter generally comes from grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies–the very ones the president’s plan intends to infuse with more cash. Today, these grants support specific research proposed by professors and executed mainly by paid Ph.D. students.

The demand for (often narrowly defined) research results, the need for myriad compliance mechanisms, and the gravitational pull toward meeting (narrow) program goals that will, if successful, yield follow-on funding, act together to create a closed system within which there is little time or attention for ancillary pursuits, especially idle exploration. This process can yield excellent researchers, but does nothing to form–and unintentionally suppresses–whole-brain thinkers. Perhaps worse yet, the process actively discourages whole-brainers from even applying.

This situation contrasts sharply with the undergraduate experience at top universities where students customize their education, engaging in social entrepreneurship, studying global health in Africa or China, competing in solar car races, working on sustainability in Central America or collaborating with an art or music major. Undergraduate exploration, creativity and social entrepreneurship is actively encouraged. Not so at the graduate level.

Some years ago, NSF realized that producing excellent research was not enough and added a requirement to research proposals: a section on broader impacts. A step forward, but a baby step. Most engineering Ph.D’s go on to careers outside of academia where whole-brain skills are paramount.

The solutions?

Change must start with grade and high schools avoiding bifurcating students, either implicitly or explicitly into “math-and-no-art” and “art-and-no-math” tracks. For graduate programs, the critical solution is to offer alternative programs that echo the whole brain experience of undergraduates. Perhaps art, literature or music portfolios become part of the science and engineering application processes.

Fundamentally, governmental funding restrictions will need new models to accommodate what constitutes graduate work and allow for flexibility and exploration. Universities also need new recruiting models to enrich the composition of the faculty to include those who understand, possess and encourage the importance of whole-brain graduate education.

For some in academe, this feels revolutionary. From the perspective of the federal agencies providing the funding, and the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it, it should be the quid pro quo.

The essential American character of optimism comes from the industry and creativity of its citizens. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our universities. When you walk in to an engineering classroom or studio (which one of us does more frequently), it is impossible not to feel optimistic and inspired. When you visit freshly minted innovators in the private sector in both small and large companies (which the other of us does more often), you know the engine of the American innovation is strong.

We just need to be sure we build the right roads to take us and our scientists where we need to go.

Mark Mills, a physicist, served in President Reagan’s White House science office, is co-founding partner of Digital Power Capital, an energy tech venture fund, and is co-author of The Bottomless Well, Basic Books (2005).

Julio M. Ottino, professor of chemical, biological and mechanical engineering, is dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University.

To view the initial publication, click here.

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