To me, research involves the generation of knowledge. It is the process by which we replace ignorance with a new understanding based on rigorous methods established by scholars in a given field.
I can actually pinpoint the precise moment when I recognized the broad nature of university research. As an undergraduate I had a dual major in biology and psychology, so I had to take my share of courses involving test tubes and other paraphernalia of the science laboratory. One day I attended a required office hour with my English professor. I found her typing furiously – on a typewriter, not a PC, since these were yet to be invented. She motioned for me to sit while she finished her work, and then exclaimed: “That’s it. My paper for the Shakespeare conference is done!” She must have noticed my confused look. Why would an English professor go to a conference on Shakespeare; wasn’t that for actors? In the ensuing hour she explained to me that she had spent her summer in England tracking down the original drafts of one of the Bard’s sonnets to establish how his writing progressed with each new version. Through this brief interaction I grasped for the first time there was more to research than test tubes and beakers. Consequently, I view my job as vice president of research as supporting and promoting all research efforts at GW, whether in the law school or in microbiology, in religious studies or computer science.
A natural question for GW students is: How will the new emphasis on research at GW impact teaching? I am convinced that raising GW to a top tier research university will enhance the teaching and learning experience for all of our students.
The fact is, taking a class from a first-rate scholar is a different experience than learning the same material from a good teacher who is not an active researcher. The former has a perspective on the field that can be shared with students in a unique way. In a real sense, gaining knowledge from a top practitioner in any field is much like being a part of the research endeavor itself. At its best it can be a “you are there” experience. Not every student may appreciate this distinction, but for many, as it was for me, this can be a life-changing event. What turned me on to science was the passion of an assistant professor in one of the required classes I took. Even though I was not particularly interested in the subject matter, the fact that this instructor seemed completely enthralled by his research intrigued me. We have many such professors at GW today, and at a top tier research university such individuals are the norm.
Moreover, top tier research schools attract the best student applicants at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and that is the case even when high school student applicants have little interest in pursuing research careers. That’s because top tier research schools have reputations for general excellence, and that often pays dividends in future employment prospects irrespective of the student’s major.
That leaves the question of whether teaching and other programs will get less financial support in our quest to become a top tier research institution. I would argue that the opposite is the case. There is a positive correlation between the research standing of institutions and the amount of money they are able to generate from grant overheads, foundation funding and development gifts: The higher the research standing, the more funding from sources other than tuition dollars. As everyone knows, correlation does not mean causation. But there is evidence that the two are in fact causally related. For instance, at the University of California, where I spent my entire academic career, fundraising spiked both at UC-Irvine and UC-Santa Barbara in the years after faculty at these campuses won Nobel Prizes. What’s more, this had a lasting and widespread effect – more funds were received not just for research, but also for student financial assistance, classrooms and even sporting facilities. People are inclined to donate more to institutions that are perceived as being among the front ranks of research.
Finally, research universities provide multiple opportunities for students to participate in faculty projects. Many GW students are taking advantage of this by working with professors in various departments across our campus. This is a particularly worthwhile benefit of attending an institution that emphasizes research. I will soon announce funds from my office for the support of undergraduate research. There will be five annual awards of $2,000 each provided for this purpose. Stay tuned for pertinent details.
The writer is the University’s vice
president for research.