The University and Public Views of Science

On Oct. 20, 2015, Amber Miller led a discussion about the contrast between today’s public attitudes toward the activities of the research university and the university-based research in the natural sciences with those of the post-World War II era. Why are research universities not understood as the vital contributors to contemporary society that they are? Where is their impact and how have communications from the sciences and/or universities helped or hindered relationships with the public? The project aims to consider how universities can re-establish repute as primary drivers of solutions to major global challenges.

Mid-20th century science flourished by being identified as a way of resisting ‘enemies.’ Does special priority for science require such an idea? Current issues provide much more amorphous ‘enemies’ like climate change. Is the problem that the enemy in question is ourselves and consensus is unlikely to develop because the question of how to live is not possible to answer in only one way? ¬†Globalism adds a new factor: public demand for science to address crises like Ebola that might once have been neglected as regional. Scientific stakeholders have recognized institutional ‘globality’ in alliances of national academies, despite different granting and funding strategies, yet science often maintains a nationalist function, if not form.

Research universities also face a democratic challenge. Research design oversight has changed the conduct of research and developed administrative obligations to which scientists have had to adapt. Because universities take in taxpayer money and tend to produce knowledge passed on to private entities, they also face questions of this nature.

While scientific results continue to gain public attention, historical patterns of low public interest in the creation and process of research continue. Competition for funding in capitalist systems throws doubt on the victory or enemy model. The current popularity of concepts like data-richness or data-driven decision-making suggests a scientific ethos without observing the continuing contribution to modern life. Given a political climate that has pushed intellectual work to the fringes, what can be done to make better known the contribution of university-based research?