July 18, 2014

'Not by STEM alone': Panelists survey state of higher ed

David Skorton and Dan Huttenlocher
Jesse Winter Photography
President David Skorton, left, and Cornell Tech Dean Dan Huttenlocher discuss research funding, new approaches and pressing challenges at Summit 2014 NYC, hosted by CASE.

The closing session of a three-day conference on the future of higher education was soft on numbers but hard on detailing the pressing choices ahead.

But perhaps that was the point.

Cornell President David Skorton, a cardiologist, expressed his concerns about the fate of social sciences and humanities.

“We cannot let our government off the hook” when it comes to funding a wide variety of educational and research disciplines, Skorton said July 15, generating the longest applause during a panel discussion called “Great Discoveries Made Here.”

Nearly 800 people attended Summit 2014 NYC, hosted by CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, in Manhattan.

Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, who moderated the panel, asked about National Science Foundation funding facing the wrath of congressional budget cutters. Without social science research, Skorton replied, “how are we going to understand our adversaries or our friends?”

Panelists said focusing funding on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields is not enough. “I’ve had a lifetime in science and medicine,” Skorton said. “We will not solve our problems by STEM alone.”

In addition to cuts in government subsidies, corporate funding for research and development is decreasing in the United States, said Dan Huttenlocher, dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech.

An exciting part of Cornell’s tech campus, planned for Roosevelt Island in 2017, Huttenlocher said, is “you get to rethink from the ground up. … How do we work with industry in new ways? How do we build much broader and strategic relationships with corporations?’’

Huttenlocher said the entire approach to studying human behavior is shifting, with the availability of vast amounts of Internet data that document everyone’s daily lives as opposed to relying on traditional approaches such as observation used in anthropology and laboratory experiments used in psychology and sociology.

But he cautioned that a large gulf remains between universities and corporations on what research is worth pursuing. “We need to work to bridge that gulf,” he said.

Alfred Z. Spector, vice president of research at Google Inc., said the explosion of computer science during the past 40 years continues to lead to progress and innovations beyond anyone’s imagination. While Google continues to give research money to hundreds of universities annually, “there’s never enough money,” Spector said. “Our budget isn’t growing fast enough for that.”

As competing colleges and universities increasingly shift more resources to online classes, the panelists wondered aloud: Who will get access, what will they learn, and how will professors or prospective employers assess exactly what was learned?

There are countless examples of how computer science can intersect with all other fields, Spector said. “The challenge for universities is to figure out how to do that.”

Jon Craig ’80 is a journalist based in Westchester County, New York.