I attended an excellent panel this morning here on campus organized by TAMEST that explored the mission of research universities in the modern world. There were many convincing arguments made to support the claim that the presence of a top research university had enormous economic impact on the local and state economies which take us beyond the usual metrics of graduation rate and the push to drive prices down and output up! David Daniel of UT Dallas was particularly articulate in explaining the relationship between venture capital investment in the locales of research universities and the resulting employment trends from new companies. But more than an economic argument (which really seems compelling in and of itself) the panel made the case for research as a means of education, not an alternative activity on our campuses.
The opportunity for comment was so limited I could not get a chance to make another point, namely that when one examines the discovery, invention, creativity and problem-solving across disciplines, the underlying psychological processes are similar to the point that one can justifiably claim human problem-solving to be discipline-agnostic. So, when students learn through research activities, it matters less that they are studying engineering or music, computer science or sociology, the essential skills and practices they need to master are more similar than different. If there is a case for the humanities and arts in research universities, it is not that they are nice extras but rather, they are fundamental zones of enquiry whose study can help shed more light on how we discover and innovate, and consequently produce the type (not just the amount) of graduates that will continue to advance our world.