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Policy

Harvard Maps Out Future Of Science And Engineering

Committee invites comment on preliminary research and education recommendations

by Sophie L. Rovner
July 19, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 30

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Credit: HARVARD UNIVERSITY/ALLSTON DEVELOPMENT GROUP
Harvard will build an interdisciplinary science center in Allston (foreground), across the river from its Cambridge campus (middle). Boston can be seen in the background.
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Credit: HARVARD UNIVERSITY/ALLSTON DEVELOPMENT GROUP
Harvard will build an interdisciplinary science center in Allston (foreground), across the river from its Cambridge campus (middle). Boston can be seen in the background.

A committee charged with enhancing science and engineering at Harvard University has issued a preliminary report that recommends ways to increase interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists in the university's highly autonomous departments.

The university faces some challenges as it evolves. Interim President Derek C. Bok writes in a letter accompanying the University Planning Committee for Science & Engineering's preliminary report that "Harvard's 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."

The committee offers several suggestions intended to overcome these barriers. For instance, it recommends that Harvard set up interdepartmental committees and cross-school departments, including a department of chemical and physical biology, to facilitate interdisciplinary science and engineering.

The report also backs the idea of creating an interdisciplinary research center in Boston's Allston neighborhood. The university plans to extend its campus in this community across the Charles River from the main Harvard campus in Cambridge. Allston represents a relief valve of sorts because, as committee member and chemistry professor Cynthia M. Friend puts it, "we???re in an urban area and there's no place else to build."

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Credit: JULIE O'NEIL
Friend and her fellow committee members are urging Harvard to break down barriers.
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Credit: JULIE O'NEIL
Friend and her fellow committee members are urging Harvard to break down barriers.

No decision has yet been made as to whether chemists will be relocated from Cambridge to Allston, Friend says. Regardless, the university will work to keep the two locations—as well as the medical school—integrated and equally vital in terms of research, participation in governance, and teaching, she adds. One option: Individual research groups could carry out part of their work in Allston and part in Cambridge.

The report recommends a broader role for faculty members in planning the future of science and engineering at the university through the development of a Science & Engineering Committee. Made up of faculty members and deans, this committee would assess, prioritize, and provide some of the funding for Harvard's portfolio of science and engineering activities.

The group would "have some sort of say about programs that would cut across the different schools," Friend explains. She concedes that this proposal could be controversial given that the schools historically "have been very autonomous."

While incubating its fledgling interdisciplinary programs, "Harvard should continue to invest in core disciplines," according to the report. Many of the institution's scholars and teachers "work in well-established disciplines where old questions remain unanswered and exciting new questions have appeared."

The university should promote diversity when hiring faculty and seeking postdocs and grad students, the committee notes. Friend adds that women and minorities must hold leadership positions in order to have a say in "how to disburse resources, whom to hire, and how to admit or train students. If you don't have women and minorities in those positions, then it will probably be business as usual."

The committee will gather feedback on its preliminary recommendations and issue a final report in December.

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