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Fostering Scientific Innovation in the Age of Globalization
Written by Stacy Schultz
On this last day of UW Bothell’s Innovation Forum, current and former UW provosts, along with university professors and a local business leader came together to discuss the future of scientific innovation in the age of globalization. In his presentation, J. Rogers Hollingsworth, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and History at the University of Wisconsin, discussed the value of researchers working together across disciplines.
Often scientists in different fields do not recognize they are addressing similar problems, he said. For example, researchers across disciplines are exploring the structure of complex networks. This is the case in work on neural networks, genes, transportation hubs, and international banking. It is also the case in research focused on properties of binding, which have implications from chemistry to nation building.
“There are these central problems,” he said. “We can use these common models and methods and really work together across different fields to generate new knowledge.”
To better facilitate communication across disciplines, Hollingsworth favors small research institutions that work alongside larger universities. “We need a new kind of research institution that is truly global,” he said.
UW Provost Ana Mari Cauce said she thought UW Bothell has an opportunity to be innovative in ways that more long-term established university campuses may not. “To me what is exciting about UW Bothell is that it is able to develop without an infrastructure that has been inherited,” she said.
She said one exciting area is the interdisciplinary use of campus buildings. “The crossroads are where innovations happen,” she said. “We are thinking about buildings in terms of function, not discipline.”
UW Bothell Interdisciplinary arts and sciences professor Alan Wood noted that when organizations get bigger, they develop less tolerance for risk. Thomas Clement, CEO of both Cardiac Insight Inc., and Aqueduct, agreed that with growth comes a reluctance to fail. “As organizations grow, they do get risk averse,” he said. “When you get bigger, big mistakes can be fatal.”
Former UW President Lee Huntsman offered some benefits of large universities. “We go to a lot of trouble to hire individuals who are brilliant, highly motivated, and hard to manage,” he said. “We give them the keys to the institution and then we get out of the way. In the macro sense, that works well.”
He also said there are advantages to the “greater menu of disciplines” within a large university. “I think of a university as a collection of small organizations,” he said. “It is like a holding company.”
Hollingsworth cautioned that future research programs should invest in basic science as well as applied research. “Many of the major innovations that we have today didn’t exist 40 – 50 years ago,” he said. “There were fundamental discoveries in science done decades ago that no one anticipated their impact.”
One audience member asked about the challenge of involving students in innovative research when many come to the classroom unprepared for high level science and math.
Cauce said that students are crucial to trans-disciplinary work. “They are like the bees that cross-pollinate,” she said. At the same time, she acknowledged that introductory science classes are often not engaging enough to students who are required to take the courses, but may not see why they need to know the material. This is an area where the university could do more, she said.
Clement suggested allowing people to learn in different ways. “It can’t be a cookie cutter approach,” he said. “You have to figure out how to get people curious.”
Hollingsworth said new technologies are going to revolutionize education. In the future, he cannot imagine that instruction will be like it is today, especially with the use of video. “Courses can be shared across the globe,” he said. “I can imagine a professor teaching hundreds of thousands of students.”