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Workshop on the Changing Environment for Biological Research and Graduate Education in Universities

National Science Foundation-Sponsored Workshop
The Pennsylvania State University
March 12, 1996


The objective of this workshop was to bring together faculty, students and administrators to open a dialog with the National Science Foundation on the changing agenda for universities in the biological sciences. The research university model developed over the past three decades is under pressure from: (1) decreasing availability of support through research grants; (2) increased expectations of its teaching mission; (3) changes in employment patterns of graduates, and; (4) revolutionary changes in both the volume of information available, as well as in storage and distribution technology. With the goal of maintaining the vitality of research and graduate education in the biological sciences under increasing budgetary constraints. NSF seeks information on how current pressures are affecting the lives and careers of biological scientists today.

Looking Toward A National Dialog Between Universities And Funding Agencies
The Workshop's purpose was to: 1) define the impact of external changes on biological scientists and 2) identify changes needed in the university's reward system and its graduate education programs, as well as in government funding mechanisms, to maintain the quality of university research and better prepare its graduates with advanced degrees for changing employment patterns.

The workshop was attended largely by members of the life sciences research community at the Pennsylvania State University, ranging from graduate students through full professors, from both the main campus at University Park and the Hershey Medical Center. The attendees included a number of individuals from the College of Education and from the Institute for Higher Education with interests in educational reform and innovation.

The workshop commenced with short talks by the University's President Graham Spanier, Provost John Brighton and NSF's Assistant Director for Biological Sciences Mary Clutter. This was followed by a panel discussion whose purpose was to articulate the issues confronting graduate education from the perspective of a graduate student, a post-doctoral fellow, a juniors faculty member and a historian of the research university. The panel was followed by breakout sessions of the indicated topics in the morning and afternoon. The entire group reassembled in late afternoon and breakout group leaders summarized each discussion. Salient points are summarized below.

Morning Breakout Session: Identifying The External Pressures Which Universities Should Be Responding To And The Institutional Barriers Standing In The Way Of Change.

  • The changing world demands a move toward interdisciplinarity in research and education, driven by the need in the business environment for team players with expertise in several areas and a willingness to adapt to changing agendas. To meet the needs of today's society, biological research requires a combination of interdisciplinary teams working with information from independent investigators to solve increasingly complex problems.

    The current educational system is perceived as one in which problems are isolated and narrowed too much while often the big picture is overlooked. Finally, a smaller percentage of graduate students move on to academic positions and hence the educational system has a responsibility to prepare students for a wider range of career possibilities and realities. Graduate education needs to be aimed at producing scientists, not academics alone.

    An individual with a Ph.D. should be educated to think critically and in depth on a broad range of topics and to respond to changing environments. It is further imperative that graduate students be exposed to all career opportunities. Obstacles to these changes are primarily social: the culture of academic science values success in academic research careers above others. Students must learn that there are many other career paths and that they are equally valuable.

  • A major force driving institutional change perceived by several breakout groups was the decreasing availability of research funds and increasing external demands by the public for better value for their educational expenditures. There is demand for faculty in the sciences to do more teaching. At the same time, faculty find themselves in an increasingly disadvantageous position in securing external research funds because of shrinking federal research dollars. Simultaneously, reaching research objectives is becoming more difficult and most amenable to interdisciplinary, collaborative approaches. The view was also expressed that universities should be responding to the changing demands of society by becoming much more involved in the flow of talent and information from the university to the public and to industry.

  • The major institutional barrier to change identified in virtually all groups was the university's reward system, which evolved during a time when research funding was increasing rapidly and were therefore relatively easy to obtain. While faculty are technically hired to teach, they are rewarded primarily for getting grants and publishing research papers. Moreover, while collaborative and interdisciplinary research are increasingly important in problem solving, as well as in surviving in a difficult funding environment, tenure criteria are often inimical to individuals involved in collaborative research. In addition, faculty who become involved in extra-departmental collaborations are sometimes perceived as disloyal to their home department and not given credit either for collaborative research or teaching done outside of the department. Thus the traditional departmental structure of universities was also perceived as a major barrier to change. The consensus view of some breakout groups was that teaching should be an integral part of every faculty member's portfolio and appropriately rewarded, but that this was generally not the case, in part because of the fact that research accomplishments are much easier for a promotion and tenure committee to evaluate than teaching success.

  • A more immediate barrier to change at the level of graduate education is the grant system itself. While it was generally perceived that graduate students should be educated more broadly and exposed to employment opportunities, perhaps in the form of internships outside of the university, faculty with grants needed graduate students to carry out the research in order to remain funded, which they were increasingly under pressure from the university to do. As a consequence, faculty have no motivation to broaden graduate students' education by encouraging them to explore experiences outside of the laboratory.

  • Finally, national university performance standards are based on disciplines and departments acquire reputations for having outstanding researchers, not for carrying out other aspects of their university missions. Since universities vie for high marks in national rankings, there is no institutional incentive to support interdisciplinary research programs.

Afternoon Breakout Session: Suggested Changes In Universities To Foster Constructive Change In Response To External Pressures.

Suggested Changes In Promotion And Tenure Procedures:

  1. Promotion and tenure committees need to accept collaborative research and education (this needs to be written into the P&T guidelines). Collaborators should be asked to identify each investigator's role in a project.

  2. New criteria for graduate education in interdisciplinary research need to be embraced to encourage needed changes in graduate education.

  3. Departmental boundaries need to be abolished or restructured for P&T decision-making.

  4. Teaching and service to the university must be valued more highly. Internal incentives must be developed to encourage and reward better teaching.

Suggested Changes In Graduate Education:

  1. A major need in redesigning the graduate education program was perceived to be the necessity of supporting each student for at least l-2 years from sources other than individual grants. NSF could play a role in this regard by shifting some of its graduate student funding from individual grants to more broadly conceived training grants, perhaps differing from both the traditional disciplinary training grants and the more recent, narrowly focused training grants, to encourage universities to foster interdisciplinary research and graduate education simultaneously. This would accomplish the goal of reducing the perception of graduate students as "slave labor."

  2. Current and new graduate programs need to explore different ways of teaching, such as "active" or "problem-based" learning, reassess student evaluation mechanisms, such as candidacy and comprehensive examinations, for their relevance in preparing students for life-long learning and provide training to graduate students in grantsmanship and research project management.

  3. NSF could also play a role in supporting both interdisciplinary research and graduate programs that encourage collaborative ventures with organizations outside of the university. Industry could play a stronger role by providing state-of-the-art equipment for graduate education (industries complain that students are trained on out-dated equipment).

  4. The view was expressed that NSF could play a very useful role in encouraging academic institutions to reexamine their responsibilities to the students they train and the public that support their efforts. This might take the form of requiring teaching and service components for every funded grant, much as CAREER awards are designed. However, the cautionary note was issued that faculty priorities should be reoriented with care so as not to damage the extremely successful U. S. research enterprise.

  5. The view was expressed that while all graduate students needed to learn to teach, the teaching experiences that most graduate students had were inadequately guided, hence better preparation for teaching was felt to be a much-needed improvement in graduate education.

Suggested Improvements In The Relationship Between University Research/Teaching Enterprise And The Public:

  1. It was suggested that interactions between graduate students/faculty and local, state and national communities are extremely important to the long-term well-being of the scientific enterprise. It was noted that the lack of reward for this type of service within the university and the scientific community discouraged it.

  2. It was recommended that faculty be required to perform one day per year of secondary or elementary school service as a requirement for promotions.

  3. Department budgets should have allocations for public relations and outreach.

  4. Graduate students and faculty need to be trained better to communicate with the non-scientific public. To this end, it was suggested that there be an option in graduate programs for science writers. It was also suggested that university public relations offices needed to have scientists on their staff or as consultants.


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