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The University and Public Views of Science

On Oct. 20, 2015, CGT member Amber Miller led a discussion about the contrast between public attitudes toward scientific research specifically, and the intellectual activity of the research university more broadly, in the post World War II and Cold War eras with those of today. The primary goal being to understand these changes in order to begin to engage the question of how we, as a university community, may be able to re-establish our role in the world as a primary driver of solutions to major global challenges.

Using the sciences as an example, 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 this communication?

Universities face a democratic challenge. In research, design oversight has changed the conduct of research and was demanded from scientists. As universities are bodies that take in taxpayer money and tend to produce knowledge passed on to private entities, they also face questions. Mid-20th century science flourished by being identified as a way of resisting ‘enemies’. Does strong cultural priority for science require such an idea? What is to be done with current ‘enemies’ that are much more amorphous in issues like climate change or poverty? 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.

Moreover, Globalism is a new factor: public demand to address crises through science that might once have been neglected as regional (for example Ebola) are now taken up as global issues. Scientific stakeholders have recognized ‘globality’ in alliances of national academies, despite different granting and funding strategies. Even so, science maintains nationalist function, if not form.

What we see is that science struggles historically to obtain public interest. Competition for funding in capitalist systems throws doubt on the victory or enemy model. While epistemic change leverages changing use of resources, science still has much to contribute. Communication and adaptation? How does that face a change in political ethic that has pushed intellectual work to the fringes?

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