Universities must support the public good

Universities must support the public good


Photo courtesy of Moshe Vardi

By Moshe Vardi 09/27/22 10:54 PM

Editor’s note: This is a guest review submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Thresher or its editorial board. All guest reviews are verified to the best of our abilities and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher’s editors.

What is the purpose of universities, in general, and Rice University, in particular? It is a subject of a lot of debate these days. Let me first offer a disciplinary perspective. I am an active member of the Association for Computing Machinery, the oldest and largest professional society dedicated to computing. Associations’ Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct says, “The actions of IT professionals change the world. To act responsibly, they must think about the broader impacts of their work, consistently supporting the public good. Ethical computing therefore has a responsibility to support the public good. Going back to the question of openness, I believe that the main objective of universities is to support the public good. What is the public good? My favorite definition was provided by Hammurabi almost 4,000 years ago: “to promote the well-being of mankind”.

Let me provide a little more historical context. In 2020, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of “Science, the endless frontier“, a very influential report submitted in 1945 to President Truman by Vannevar Bush, an engineer and scientific administrator who, during World War II, headed the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development. The report – which led to the creation of the National Science Foundation – argued that scientific progress is essential to human progress – economic growth, health care and national defense. Bush argued that this essential new knowledge can only be obtained through basic scientific research. He concluded that it is the role of the federal government to support the advancement of science. His philosophy can be summed up in one sentence: “Science for the public good”.

Bush’s 1945 vision was revisited in 2020 in an article “Scientific institutions for a complex and rapidly changing worldby Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University. McNutt and Crow noted that over the past 75 years, societal challenges – from nuclear proliferation to climate change to the concentration of wealth and the impact of social media on expertise and truth – “that have resulted, at least in part, from society’s application of scientific advances, are now issues that science itself must directly help to resolve. They concluded that the institutions that have achieved much of the scientific progress in past 75 years must reassess their mission and commit themselves not only to advancing scientific knowledge, but also to solving the societal problems that technology, guided by scientific knowledge, has created. focus on the public good, but in a broader sense.

Rice’s Mission Statement declared Rice’s mission is: “innovative research, unparalleled teaching and contribution to the betterment of our world”. I like this mission, but I would have modified it slightly: “innovative research and unparalleled teaching for the betterment of our world. Improving the world, that is, contributing to the public good, must be Rice’s ultimate mission, I believe. In fact, even the trademark phrase “unconventional wisdom” is part of a longer statement: “Rice is a community…that believes that improving the world takes more than bold thinking and courageous action. It takes unconventional wisdom.” Improving the world is the goal; unconventional wisdom is the way. My choice for Rice’s trademark phrase is “Research and Education for the Public Good.” But I have yet to see many discussions at Rice that explicitly focus on Rice’s commitment to the public good.

Scientific and technological progress does not automatically lead to societal progress. The interplay between technology, culture and society is extremely complicated, as shown, for example, by the unexpected resistance to COVID-19 vaccines. In 2019, Rice University spear a Technology, Culture and Society Initiativewhose objective is “to create a place of permanent intellectual and multidisciplinary activity at Rice dedicated to the descriptive and prescriptive study of a socio-technical system – namely, how technology impacts society and culture, and how society reacts to these impacts”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of the Initiative’s planned events. With campus life at Rice gradually returning to normal, several Initiative events will take place this fall. I hope these events will stimulate a vigorous conversation on campus about technology, culture, and society, and, most importantly, Rice’s commitment to the public good. How should this commitment impact our teaching and research activities? There is a lot to discuss!

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