Email Print Share

NSF Workshop on the Changing Environment for Biological Sciences at Colleges and Universities

University of Tennessee, Knoxville
September 13, 1996

Over 20 faculty convened at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville representing UTK biology departments and chemistry, neighboring 2-year colleges (Pellissippi State, Roane State and Walters State) and Knoxville College (List of participants attached). The purpose of the one-day session was to discuss the changing environment for both research and education and discuss ways to adapt to change and ways NSF might facilitate adaptation. In preparation for the workshop a set of issues and questions about the changing environment for research and education was circulated to participants (Appendix).

The Workshop began in plenary session to hear views from the perspective of NSF, University administration (both research and undergraduate education) and a new tenure-track faculty member. Dr. Julius Jackson described NSF's view of its mission in a post-Cold War, fiscally stringent era, the current funding picture, and the rise of the research university. NSF's strategic plan describes 4 core strategies:

  1. Develop Intellectual Capital
  2. Integrate Research and Education
  3. Strengthen the Physical infrastructure
  4. Promote Partnerships

However, NSF and other science agencies face fulfilling their missions in a shrinking fiscal environment as the Nation struggles with the over-arching need to balance the Federal budget. All current projections indicate that over the next 7 years, non-defense R&D will decline overall by 23%. While NSF likely will not experience such a precipitous decline, the message is clear that one can not look to Washington to invent new programs without phasing out something. Furthermore, if investment accurately tracks innovation, then the U.S innovation is at risk as its level of R&D investment is tracking downward while that of chief economic competitors is rising.

Dr. Jackson also pointed out that nationally the academy is viewed with significant skepticism by its stakeholders and patrons alike, especially the research university, itself a product of the rise in science spending over the past four decades before 1989 and the fall of Communism. Higher education is criticized as arrogant, self-indulgent and resistant to change. While graduate education remains highly effective in preparing those whose careers will focus on academic research, it serves other career paths less well-- notably teaching and work in industry. Faculty scientists need to respond constructively to these criticisms recognizing the realities imposed by the changing environment for research and higher education.

Dr. Mike Devine, Vice Chancellor for Research, discussed the proposition that the current system is broken. He proposed that the essential pieces are in place, but adaptation to the new fiscal environment must occur and public perception of higher education, especially at research universities, must be corrected. We must avoid assuming a defensive posture and instead face to the realities of the changing environment and adapt accordingly As fiscal reins tighten in Washington, the states must be convinced to help. Such requests for assistance must be seen as not as unfunded mandates but as a justified need for states to invest in higher education and research. For example, with limited funds to assist professors with required cost sharing, will institutions like UTK be able to compete nationally?

There were some unfortunate, unintended consequences of the past growth in federal funds. Universities tended to isolate themselves from business and industry, a trend now being reversed. The consequences of isolation have been a loss of connection between innovation in Universities with application in industry, and providing a lack of appropriate training for students to work effectively in industries.

Dr. Linda Maxson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, felt that from the standpoint of integrating research and education that the system indeed was broken. While NSF and other agencies could facilitate and promote change, the responsibility for making corrections must rest with the academy. There should be a seamless boundary between teaching and research. Universities (and their faculties) must change their views such that research and teaching are viewed on an equal footing with each other in terms of promotion and tenure and the reward system at colleges and universities.

In the extreme, even the successful PI can become disjointed from research as he/she seeks to keep a steady stream of grants active to support the operation of a lab (a "grant mill" and not a scholar's laboratory). There clearly is pressure from university administrations to garner outside resources to replace declining state funds and tuition that fails to keep pace with increased costs.

Much has been said about specialized education in the sciences to support those students planning careers or advanced study in the sciences. However, general education for non-science majors has been woefully neglected. Things have to change.

Are we asking too much of a newly appointed professor, particular in the face of a declining budgetary environment and the pressure to be an effective teacher. Perhaps the time to a tenure decision is too short for today's environment. Perhaps we need different models for research--consider more collaborative research projects where groups of faculty work together. Effective outreach is an important way to change public perceptions, fulfill missions to support life-long learning, and combine research with education.

Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, UTK Assistant Professor in the Botany Department, reminded the group that the system of higher education and university-based research is irreplaceable. To say that the system is broken may be too harsh. What is needed is to understand what is wrong, the severity of the problem and steps that can be taken to correct the problems. Dr. Pigliucci pointed out that undergraduates gain at least two major benefits from participating in research-- ability to think critically and to solve problems. These also are critical to success in employment or advanced education.

Postdocs in university labs contribute significantly to the development of the faculty member beyond their contribution to research as they serve as role models to others in the lab and assist in hands-on training. In this respect they may be more available to students on an informal basis than the faculty member. A major problem facing university faculty, especially new faculty, is obtaining support for postdocs. NSF programs supporting postdocs are vitally important.

Other needs can be addressed closer to home. New faculty need support to learn to be better teachers. Universities must address the need for effective evaluation of teaching. The current system depends too much on student evaluations. Universities need to be more effective is selling their overall value to the public.

With the background of the morning discussion, the group broke out into two discussion groups. Discussions ranged widely, but converged on several conclusions and recommendations summarized below.

  1. Despite changing expectations, we must continue to strive for full participation by all qualified individuals. This will mean more sharing of opportunities, facilities and personnel among institutions. While the impetus for this will arise at the local level, NSF policies should not create artificial barriers for this cooperation to occur and ideally should promote or facilitate initiatives for cooperation.
  2. Time is the limiting resource for faculty. NSF should continue to streamline its proposal process. For larger programs, the use of preproposals and planning grants is laudable.
  3. Relative to integration of research and education, NSF might consider expanding its research training grants (or using the RTG's as a model) to be more inclusive of undergraduate education and undergraduate research as well as general education. Another model is the EHR program supporting institution-wide reform, but instead focused at the level of the department, combination of departments or college.
  4. Technology in science advances rapidly and in so doing renders many faculty obsolete with respect to technology. NSF should promote ways to help faculty stay current with technology-- summer workshops, supplements for travel or hosting faculty to learn about new technology. Faculty at community colleges and other institutions with heavy teaching are especially at risk of losing touch with modern research technology.
  5. The reward structure at colleges and universities between research and teaching needs change. Presently it is skewed toward research. Consideration should be given to creating a National Teaching Faculty Award-- perhaps similar to current awards directed to younger faculty but open to all..
  6. Public outreach is an important mechanism for creating a citizenry knowledgeable about the role of research in higher education. There are many excellent outreach programs. NSF should consider additional ways to stimulate outreach and nationally recognize excellent and effective programs. This may not require significant NSF resources as there are local sources to support such programs, but the national recognition that NSF could provide would greatly facilitate securing funds.
  7. An issue that NSF must face is how it defines "excellence" as a criterion for supporting a project. How one draws the line between excellent research and an excellent training laboratory needs better definition. Perhaps an evaluation scheme that separates excellence in science and excellence in training is needed. The current use of add-on funds to support education or the integration of research and education is successful, should be retained/expanded, and serve as a model for others.
  8. Both locally and within NSF, greater attention should be paid to the relationships between 2-year and 4-year institutions. Many students begin their higher education at 2-year institutions. The same concerns that affect how we address lower division undergraduate education at 4-year institutions are of concern to 2-year institutions, including faculty development, access to opportunities and facilities, stimulating interest in prospective majors, and undergraduate research.


The Rules Are Changing
Issues and Questions for Discussion at the UTK-NSF Workshop
September 13, 1996

Circumstances at home are changing for institutions of higher education.

  • The research university can no longer be perceived as an ivory tower. Research must show relevance to society.
  • Students and legislatures are demanding more emphasis on teaching with expectations in improved quality and quantity. At the same time, biology enrollments are increasing.
  • Institutions of higher education must find new funding sources and serve new kinds of students. The transitory nature of employment means that more opportunities for upgrading education must become available. This demand is increasing at the same time that financial aid for students is decreasing.
  • The network revolution means that competition for students will soon be world-wide.

Circumstances in Washington are drastically altered.

  • Federal funding for research and education will remain static (best case) or decline precipitously (worst case). NIH may be the exception.
  • Integration of research with education is becoming a major theme at the federal level.
  • The present model of graduate education is being criticized based on a perception that Ph.D. skills are not in sync with the current jobs.

Changes in society are forcing adjustments in higher education.

  • Electronic information gathering and dissemination are changing the way faculty use libraries and publish findings.
  • The composition of student bodies is shifting toward groups that have not traditionally studies science. What efforts must scientists make to reach these groups?
  • Non-U.S. science is growing rapidly in size and strength. Cooperation, especially in Europe, has generated an enterprise quite equivalent to that of the U.S.

Important questions are raised by these changes

  • How can research and education be integrated by faculty at diverse types of institutions? Exactly what does this integration mean? How does it differ across the spectrum of types of institutions?
  • How can diminishing funds be leveraged at the private, state and federal levels to keep the biological sciences enterprise in this national outstanding? What will be the major needs of the colleges and universities over the next 10 years? How do these needs vary by institution type?
  • How can support for research at colleges and universities be leveraged to improve graduate and undergraduate education?
  • How can faculty best be supported as their roles change in response to changes in colleges and universities?
  • What are the best ways to utilize faculty resources in a time of limited research funding? Some possibilities: consortia/cooperative grants, long-term awards, grants that require non-federal matches?
  • What are the best ways to encourage and facilitate cooperative research efforts with other public and private agencies and institutions and with business and industry?
  • What emphasis should be placed on mechanisms to improve U.S.-international cooperation? What should these mechanisms be?


Meeting Agenda for the Workshop on the Changing Environment for the Biological Sciences at Colleges and Universities

Shiloh Room, University Center, Knoxville, Tennessee, September 13, 1996

9:30 - 10:00 AM
Registration and Coffee (Shiloh Room)

10:00 - 10:30 AM
Changing Climate for Federal Support
Dr. Julius Jackson, Director, Division of Molecular Biosciences, NSF

11:00 - NOON
Changing Climate Within the Academy
Panel of University and College Faculty

NOON - 2:00 PM
Breakout Sessions
Sandwich Buffet in Breakout Rooms

2:00 - 3:30 PM
Reports from Breakout Sessions

3:30 - 4:00 PM


UTK - NSF Workshop Participants

Dr. Patricia Pagni
Knoxville College
Biology Department
901 College ST
Knoxville, TN 37921

William C. Barr
Knoxville College
Biology Department
901 College ST
Knoxville, TN 37921

Otto J. Schwarz
UTK Botany Department

Bruce Fisher
Roane State Community College
276 Patton LN
Harriman, TN 37748

Barry Bruce
UTK Biochemistry & Cellular
& Molecular Biology Department

Kwang W. Jeon
UTK Biochemistry & Cellular
& Molecular Biology Department

Linda Maxson
UTK Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

A. Dolf King
Roane State Community College
276 Patton LN
Harriman, TN 37748

Pamela Fouche
Walters State Community College
Department of Natural Sciences
500 S Davy Crockett Parkway
Morristown, TN 37813-6899

Ed Schilling
UTK Botany Department

Mike Devine
Office of Research Administration

Jeff Kovac
UTK Chemistry

Mike Sepaniak
UTK Chemistry

Albrecht von Arnim
UTK Botany Department

Beth Mullin
UTK Botany Department

Les Hickok
UTK Botany Department

Massimo Pigliucci
UTK Botany Department

Mary Ann Handel
UTK Biochemistry & Cellular
& Molecular Biology Department

Linda Smith-Stator
Pellissippi State Community College
Department Head of Natural Sciences
PO Box 22990
Knoxville, TN 37933-0990

Neil Greenberg
UTK Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department

John Koontz
UTK Biochemistry & Cellular
& Molecular Biology Department

Mitch Cruzan
UTK Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department



Back to BIOAC Workshop Reports main page