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Focus on learning underlies all we do
October 13, 1998

"We are distinguished from other social institutions by our assignment to explore nature's secrets, to study art, cultures and societies, and to pass on to others what is discovered."

Mark Emmert

The University of Connecticut is a community dedicated to learning. Recognizing that research and teaching are but two sides of the same coin, we are committed to helping people learn and to learning new things ourselves. A singular focus on learning and discovery must animate and inform all that we do.

Advancing knowledge and creativity is the most distinctive form of learning. As a research-intensive university we have a special obligation to be leaders in the search for new knowledge and in fostering a greater understanding of the world around us. We are distinguished from other social institutions by our assignment to explore nature's secrets, to study art, cultures and societies, and to pass on to others what is discovered.

Mark Emmert
Chancellor Mark Emmert

Photo by Peter Morenus

In our efforts to advance the University's research mission through selective excellence, I would underscore what Vice Provost Bob Smith has often said, that the "Intellectual imperatives" represented by faculty-directed fundamental scholarship - individually oriented and departmentally based - are most critical to that mission.

It is vital that we remind ourselves and those outside the University that we are a research-driven entity and place. It is important both to the University and to the people of the state of Connecticut. Why? Because research enables the University to advance knowledge and help solve the problems of the society in which we all live.

We are committed to identifying solutions to Connecticut's economic needs through the transformation of research and education into useful technology that creates jobs, products, and industrial growth. We are building upon existing technology research programs, enhancing opportunities for the training of scientists, teachers, and technicians, and facilitating the transfer of University-developed technologies.

In an editorial headlined "Flowers to photons, research pays," The Hartford Courant began by stating: "If you thought scientific research was too esoteric to translate into practical uses that affect the daily lives of people, consider the following ..." The editorial went on to recite a litany of applied research at the University - a hardy variety of alstroemeria, a method of enhanced shrimp production, transgenic fish, and new materials for braces and teeth.

All this applied research is most commendable and a central part of our mission. But we must understand and acknowledge that such applications evolve from basic, curiosity-driven research.

In crafting our case for research, we must not create an environment in which intellectual and creative work for its own sake is undervalued. Philosophers and practitioners of science alike argue that the scientific process is, at its core, a highly creative act. The most important discoveries challenge the status quo, leading to the creation of new theories and explanatory models.

As we move more and more toward technology transfer and economic development, we must also be ever cognizant of the need for curiosity-driven research. In actuality, it comprises the vast majority of what we do here. From fundamental understanding comes the addressing of individual or societal needs.

Without basic research, technological advance is highly limited. Without curiosity-driven creative work, our knowledge of who we are and how we make our lives better is necessarily constrained.

What fascinates me today is the dynamic interplay between basic and applied scholarship. In a world where technology informs curiosity-driven research as much as the inverse, we must, nonetheless, be ever mindful of the complexities of the roles of each.

In his consideration of these roles, the late Donald E. Stokes pointed to the "spreading realization of how multiple and complex and unequally paced are the pathways from scientific to technological advance; of how often technology is the inspiration of science rather than the other way around; and of how many improvements in technology do not wait upon science at all."

Stokes cited Louis Pasteur as an exemplar of a scientist who sought to integrate basic and applied research. Pasteur strove to understand the most basic biological processes and to do so with the intention of helping solve the very real health problems of his day. His seminal work both advanced our knowledge of biology and helped others improve lives around the world. This example of constructive interplay between serious practical problems and a fundamental research agenda would be well suited to the modern land-grant university. Indeed, I suspect we might even have given Pasteur tenure.

We at the University of Connecticut must recognize that research and scholarship comes in many forms and serves many purposes. We must make room for, and be supportive of, this diversity. In truth, however, the distinctions between basic and applied research are growing less acute. Increasingly, the most exciting opportunities in science and creative work occur at the intersection of fundamental questions and real world issues.

To the extent the University addresses both, in the tradition of Monsieur Pasteur, we will have done a service to both scholarship and society.