Faculty debate how research priorities are set

The issue of who decides what Emory's research priorities are proved to be a prominent topic at the Nov. 12 Faculty Town Hall meeting on "Research at Emory: Possibilities and Prospects." The event was sponsored by the President's Office and the Faculty Council.

The debate over how Emory's research priorities should be determined evolved largely along disciplinary lines. Several humanities faculty members stressed the importance of research that challenges mainstream ideas and offers new perspectives. Conversely, many health sciences faculty members expressed support for research whose value is demonstrated by its ability to directly improve lives and, consequently, to attract significant external funding.

"I think it's dangerous not to set research priorities in this climate," said Thomas Insel, director of the Yerkes Primate Research Center. Insel said that if Emory does not identify specific research areas in which it wants to be a national and international leader, then the University will end up having mediocre research across the board, which would lead to a dramatic decline in external funding. "I'm not sure that we have the infrastructure in place to even approach the question of what are the five to 10 areas where we will be number one in the next 10 years," Insel said. Several faculty members said that while support from external funding agencies is a good barometer of what types of research should be conducted, such support is only one piece of the puzzle.

"The idea of donor-driven research fills me with terror," said Dobbs Professor of History Susan Socolow, a Latin American historian and one of four panelists at the Town Hall. "I can't imagine any sensible donor who would pay me to do research on 18th-century Argentina."

The gist of Socolow's sentiment was echoed by President Bill Chace, who affirmed that there are some standards for a great University that cannot be compromised, such as the presence of an excellent classics department. Chace said such standards must be upheld, even in the absence of passionate and convincing voices to make that case.

Chace cited panelist Frans de Waal of Yerkes and the psychology department as a passionate spokesperson for the behavioral aspect of the Yerkes mission, even in the face of a trend at other primate centers toward the molecular level. De Waal said the work of behavioral primatologists is crucial to a society in which so many major problems can be attributed to destructive and unhealthy behavior patterns.

Panelist Carol Worthman, an anthropology professor, stressed the importance of passion in any kind of faculty research work. "I see this Town Hall as a signal that we should all be more passionate about what we do," Worthman said. She said that while she initially liked Emory because the environment was not savagely competitive, she eventually began to miss some of the passion demonstrated by that competitiveness during her time at Harvard. "If we aren't willing to say what it is that we need to get our jobs done, then we do the administration and ourselves a great disservice," she said.

Dean Jones, a panelist from the biochemistry department, emphasized the role of collaborative research. An expert in nutritional toxicology, Jones is collaborating with ophthalmology professor Paul Sternberg on macular degeneration research. "We must have these kinds of collaborations to be able to make any real progress," Jones said. "Problems like macular degeneration require large groups of investigators and a team effort." Jones said that to be at the forefront of research in any medical discipline, Emory must have a critical mass of researchers in that field.

Socolow pointed out that while such a critical mass of people and large grants are necessary in the health sciences to work on a particular medical problem, in the humanities and social sciences, the quality of the person is often more important than the subject area in which the person is working.

Chace also cited a "disparity among scholars as to the relationship they have to research." He said the unique mission of the School of Public Health, for instance, requires extensive external funding for research, which is not at all the case in other academic units.

Regardless of the shape that research takes in any given school or college, said Faculty Council President Luke Johnson, the faculty must play a leadership role in shaping Emory's research climate.

--Dan Treadaway

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