Why we do research in universities

It is true that undergraduates pay (almost) everyone’s salaries in research universities. Critics contend that as a consequence the research done in universities drives up undergraduate tuition. Their argument is that the more researchers there are in a university the more undergraduates will be asked to pay for their remuneration and support.

However, although pertinent to U.S. universities, a 1997 study contends that this is not true. There are common underlying dynamics, other than organized research activities, that affect all types of universities, which have lead to increases in tuition and fees.

In universities, research is generally conducted in support of government priorities. Government policies have directed research universities to carry out three interlocking missions for teaching, research, and social engagement.  These three interwoven purposes require three synergistic, but different, business models. The same individuals and facilities are used in multiple activities and projects. However, governments, who are the ones to mandate these three missions of the research university and are also the major funders of research, are reluctant to pay for the time they ask faculty members to do research.

What are the benefits for undergraduates from attending a research university? Here, I speak from personal experience. Having a vibrant research group has allowed me to mentor many graduate students, as well as undergraduates and postdoctoral fellows. They have moved on to mentor others in similar vein and now contribute to the global knowledge economy in many different ways.

I have also been able to bring my research into the classroom and promote a thirst for discovery in undergraduates, many of who have proceeded to graduate school. I like to think that I have added value and advanced their employment. Having a research program has also allowed me to think about innovation and our collective future, which has helped me enrich undergraduate programs and experiences.

At McMaster Engineering, undergraduate students learn firsthand how to turn trees into energy storage devices capable of powering everything from a smart watch to a hybrid car.  They work with leading researchers to design, build, and drive a solar-powered car in a cross-country rally. As professors bring their research into the classroom, undergraduates explore ways to improve tooling in the manufacturing sector, how to use sensors to help seniors in their homes, and to fabricate the best types of bone implants.

Research can be fun. A McMaster researcher employs his wind turbine know-how to build better rowing oars. Research can also be useful.  Another McMaster professor uses her knowledge of microwave technology to develop ways to detect concealed weapons. A PhD candidate has harnessed a component naturally found in tears that has allowed her to develop a contact lens-based drug delivery system for glaucoma patients.

Now, back to the question of the dynamic between teaching and research.  It is generally true that at McMaster Engineering, research and teaching are inseparable, two sides of the same coin.  Likewise, it is equally true that to ensure uniform workload responsibility, a good researcher is afforded some teaching leave to do research that benefits undergraduate students, furthers scholarship and solves important problems. As I’ve written previously, academic research must involve student mentoring.

Research adds value to both undergraduate education and to society.  We would have educational programs of poorer quality and engagement without it.  In a global economy where knowledge and information are increasingly important, diminishing the role of research in universities will be a disservice to all those they educate.

That shouldn’t be a problem.

Additional reading: Living the Lie in Research Universities, and 10 Reasons to Go to a Research University.

2 thoughts on “Why we do research in universities

  1. In the “real world”, successful business corporations are guided by well-defined visions. With engineering and technology firms, research is especially critical to remain competitive by enabling development of next-generation products and services. That is exactly why good tech companies invest heavily in R&D; and encourage blue-sky ideas and out-of-the-box thinking. As with universities, company research operations are generally considered to be “non-productive” and “cost-centres” by other departments. However, research is an integral part of these organizations and its benefits cannot be quantified by short term Profit & Loss statements. Without university research, the relevancy and quality of the undergraduate academic programs will diminish over time. The current students are benefiaries of past research activities; and it is only fair that they are bearing some of the financial costs of the research into future technologies. It is just the Circle-of-Life.

    Liked by 1 person

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