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John Harvard's Journal

Sweeping Change for Science

September-October 2006

The University Planning Committee for Science and Engineering released on July 14 a preliminary report outlining a comprehensive and sweeping strategy to strengthen science at Harvard. Among the highlights, the 97-page report (PDF) calls for up to 140 new faculty positions in the next decade, requiring as much as $2 billion to endow (not including costs for shared core equipment, infrastructure, and the administration of proposed new centers and institutes, or the capital costs of constructing a new campus in Allston). The report also details a central role for deans and faculty members in the science-planning and -funding process, and envisions new University-wide departments and appointments.

Related Links:

University news release

Letter from Interim President Bok (PDF)

Committee Report (PDF)

The 24-person committee—selected by the deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard Medical School (HMS), and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)—included representatives from those schools and the affiliated teaching hospitals and was cochaired by Christopher T. Walsh of HMS (biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology) and FAS’s Andrew Murray (molecular and cellular biology) and Christopher Stubbs (physics and astronomy). In a letter to colleagues, President Derek Bok wrote that the release of the preliminary report “is intended to stimulate discussion throughout the Harvard community” and that it “provides an opportunity for us to…continue to make constructive suggestions.”

Bok noted, and the report elaborates, that “Harvard’s highly decentralized structure has nurtured highly successful individual labs, but runs the risk of creating barriers to collaborative research, to matching doctoral students with ideal mentors, and to the effective sharing of infrastructure” even as “the pace of scientific and technological discovery” accelerates. In light of this, he continued, “new approaches based on collaboration, often across disciplinary boundaries, have taken on new significance in the sciences and engineering.”

Laying out the scope of science at Harvard now—there are 550 principal investigators in FAS, HMS, and HSPH, and an additional 10,000 faculty at the affiliated hospitals and research institutes, of whom 1,200 engage primarily in basic research—the report indicates that, in all, Harvard’s scientists and engineers generated nearly $2 billion in external funding in 2005 (about $1.5 billion in the hospitals) and occupied more than 3 million square feet of research space. This scale is both a strength and a weakness: “In principle, there are almost limitless opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, but our size makes it hard” for investigators with common interests to find each other in the larger community of scholars.

The report recommends centralizing the governance of science, continuing a trend begun under Neil L. Rudenstine and furthered by Lawrence H. Summers. But in a break with past practice, it recommends putting central evaluation and partial funding of new research endeavors into the hands of a 12-person Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee (HUSEC) that would include representatives from all the science and engineering constituencies, including the deans of FAS, HMS, HSPH, and of the newly proposed Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (see “Quantum Leap for Engineering,” July-August, page 63) as well as the provost. In total, the report makes nine recommendations for significant change in pedagogy, governance, organizational structure, diversity, shared infrastructure, funding, and distribution of teaching and research across multiple campuses. And it sketches a brisk schedule for their implementation: create HUSEC by 2007, allocate resources (funding, new appointments, space) by January 2008, begin recruiting for cross-school departments and interdepartmental committees by June 2008, and occupy the first Allston building by 2009.

The report includes a candid critique of the current state of science education (based heavily on lectures) and stresses the need for more hands-on learning experiences for undergraduates. This will require new and renovated laboratory teaching space, and more faculty. The report therefore recommends lowering the administrative, logistical, and fiscal barriers to College teaching by non-FAS faculty, and also suggests creating incentives for faculty members who do teach undergraduates. At the graduate level, the report notes, students frequently face hurdles in trying to use funding originating in one department for their interdisciplinary work in another, and often must meet multiple degree requirements; it suggests uniform degree requirements and a more flexible accounting structure in response.

Regarding governance of science and engineering, the committee recommends creating four new cross-school departments to unify research efforts across the University: regenerative biology and medicine (a new name and role for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute); systems biology; chemical and physical biology; and neuroscience. In addition, five new interdepartmental committees would be formed to facilitate interdisciplinary appointments: a Harvard Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering; microbial sciences; energy and the environment; human genetics; and quantitative analysis. Potential science and technology initiatives would go to HUSEC for evaluation and possible support.

The proposed centralized appointment and funding process through HUSEC would also facilitate efforts to recruit and retain minorities and women. Besides calling for representation from these groups on HUSEC, the report points to workplace flexibility, childcare facilities, opportunities for work-force reentry, and the development of a pool of potential appointments for successful candidates’ spouses as ways to maintain a diverse faculty. Searches themselves must be active (posting job positions is not enough) and likely candidates should be tracked throughout their careers.

Some of the strongest language in the report concerns shared infrastructure. This includes not only expensive research tools (which for financial and intellectual reasons should be acquired through “coordinated investment”), but also computing capability—an area where the report finds Harvard falling “far short of the minimum we should expect from one of the world’s foremost research institutions.”

Despite the ambitious plans for growth, the planning committee’s analysis shows that, when considering the University as a whole, there is no near-term space shortage. (HSPH has no room to grow, for example, but HMS has excess leased space on its hands.) But given longer-term plans, and the opportunities presented by Allston, “creating a critical mass of intellectual activity is essential for science and engineering initiatives [there] to be successful.” Noting that the first science building will be occupied in 2009-2010, the committee expects that “the range and mix of activities we recommend will require a second science building of comparable size.” Since HSPH will also need a building in Allston, the group recommends design and execution of “a three-building complex...planned as a coherent cluster....” The report notes as well the “merits of constructing office space that could be leased to commercial, scientific, and technical clients.” This would foster an “entrepreneurial spirit” and provide “near-term cash flow as Harvard builds its Allston presence.”

The report also stresses the importance of community outreach, and speculates about ways in which science could be part of that. Given the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s proposed relocation to Allston, the committee raises the possibility of a collaboration to develop K-12 science curricula for local schools, and even suggests that Harvard should aspire to “shape U.S. science education more broadly.”

Funding these ambitious goals will be an enormous challenge. (The report explains in detail why science faculty members are more expensive on average than others.) The committee recommends new fundraising, reallocation of theFAS, HMS, and HSPH endowments, anddecapitalization of a portion of thoseendowments, as well as space and personnel contributions from affiliated hospitals, to address anticipated financial needs. “The Central Administration does not have in hand the funds needed to realize a major expansion in Allston, to support existing programs adequately, and to fund the recommendations of this report for innovation in science and engineering,” the report states bluntly. “Doing so will require substantial analysis, creativity, new revenues, and hard choices among competing priorities.”