National labs for all the sciences

Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and several other elite universities have all recently announced that they will be be offering free online courses. The courses will be massively open, taught by star professors, and supplemented with video lessons, embedded testing, and realtime feedback. This is surely good news for students who might not be able to access these resources otherwise, and it is an overall positive development for education. But what are the implications for scientists who conduct research in universities? And how will these developments affect the progress of scientific research?

Unless we correctly anticipate the changes, the implications for science might not be good, at least through the medium term. When elite universities offer classes for free, other universities will have difficulty convincing new students to enroll in their own traditional programs. Why sit through an expensive 9AM lecture at your local university when you could get the Harvard lecture for free, whenever you want? Yes, yes, students benefit from being physically present at a university: interactions with professors and other students are often irreplaceable. And yes, many universities will manage to survive in their traditional form. But as a matter of degree the future trends are clear: Online alternatives will become better, and in many cases they will offer real diplomas. As this happens, demand for traditional education at second-tier universities will decline, tuition revenue will dry up, and many excellent scientists could be laid off. In some cases, entire universities may shut down, just as many local newspapers have succumbed to competition from online journalism.

With so many good scientists out of work, the progress of science will slow down. While scientists who work on applied research may find employment in private industry, those who do basic research will not fare as well. Nonprofit research institutes may emerge as places for basic research, but donor-based funding is never guaranteed. Moreover, these nonprofits might only begin operations after a painful transition period.

This is where government can step in, anticipating the problem and preparing research institutes where scientists can work outside of a university setting. For the biological sciences, let’s start building more regional NIH campuses throughout America. In the physical sciences, let’s expand the national labs system. And for all the other sciences, let’s call for regional NSF campuses. Ideally, these initiatives will be paid for by increases in top-line budgets for science agencies. Or, if that is not an option, we could use the money saved in extramural research budgets, which will surely be trimmed as university scientists are laid off. Whatever the details, the larger scientific community must start preparing now for the coming tsunami of online education, before it’s too late.

Update: Smart comments from Doc Opp, below.

10 thoughts on “National labs for all the sciences

  1. Good post. I’d add that it’s not just the sciences that will be affected, but research professors across all fields. Academia as we know it is going to change very soon.


  2. Pingback: … end of the University as we know it (and I feel fine?) « Åse Fixes Science

  3. I disagree that government should step in. I wrote a couple of pieces one last year and one shortly after the fees decision was announced offering ways forward. I’m less into sciences, but of course it was humanities types who squealed first on this kind of thing. Let’s say everyone wants to study the Theory of Justice with Michael Sandel. He can only fit 1300 into the Sanders lecture theatre but was you say could get hundreds of thousands enrolled on an online course. Now think of how people like, say, Microsoft do their training – they accredit people to teach and mentor learners through their material.

    So let’s say we send 1300 early career academics to Harvard every summer from around the world to get accredited in being local mentors (similar to what the London External system does maybe), take refreshers courses, and participate, perhaps, in Harvard based research, and when they return they can buddy up with people using the online materials locally.

    The possibility is that you get more people being taught globally cutting edge knowledge, leaving if anything more time for people to collaborate on research. Whatever challenges we face, we must remember that there is still a market of, what, a couple of billion people who currently have little or no access to higher education opportunities. Even if they come to the UK essentially to study Sandel’s course, it’s still income for us.


  4. I should perhaps have said I am in the UK, where this is also being driven by the government’s decision 18 months ago to treble the fees paid for by students themselves (through a loan system) rather than funding universities directly for teaching, which were the main start points for my pieces mentioned above. But the other pressures are the same, whichever side of the Atlantic.


  5. Scientists are now charging students more than they are willing to pay for a scientific eduction; students are turning to a cheaper alternative that may not be 100% as good, but costs a fraction as much; scientists will lose their jobs as a result; and your proposed solution is that government should step in and employ them with taxpayer dollars now that they’ve lost their willing customers?

    Would you be this cavalier with your own money?


    • Wendy – Yes. Scientific research is in the public interest. Most of the research costs are already paid for by the government. The exception to this is salaries, a small fraction of the total cost of science that has historically been paid indirectly by tuition. If the tuition dries up, then yes, the government should step in.


  6. Online education will affect some disciplines more than others. It’s much harder to do a chemistry lab online than it is to have a large introductory history lesson. Moreover, at many of the lower tier schools which will be most affected by this change (which I agree is coming), professors aren’t doing much research anyway. When you teach a 4:4 courseload, research endeavors are a lot harder.

    So much research in biology and chemistry happens in medical schools, where the online push is, at the very least, farther away. And much physics has to happen at large schools and national labs anyway, because of the tremendous resources it requires.

    I wonder if there’s data on the amount of productivity (is publication the right metric, or maybe impact factor?) from different schools, so that we could get a sense of the size of the impact. Given that research productivity follows a power law distribution, and the best researchers are largely at the top schools which won’t be as impacted by the shift online, this may not be as large a problem for science as you imply. Although quite possibly a problem for all sorts of other reasons (universities provide a ton of benefits, aside from research, for the communities in which they’re located that could be lost).

    One last thought – you move to government as a solution, but there’s a growing movement for crowdfunding (kickstarter for research) that could be an alternative. I agree that science is a public good, but I worry about putting it in the hands of politicians more than it already is. And as Wendy notes above, we should be wary about spending taxpayer dollars if other alternatives exist.


    • Agreed on all points. The nice thing about government is that it has a longer time horizon than private funders, and so it is willing to fund projects that might not pay dividends until decades from now. But yes, we will be better off if the funding balance is tipped more (but not completely) towards the private sector.


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