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Undergraduate research drives science forward

Research at primarily undergraduate institutions is having a big impact
University Business, June 2017
David Rovnyak is professor of chemistry at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. George Shields is provost and professor of chemistry at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.
David Rovnyak is professor of chemistry at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. George Shields is provost and professor of chemistry at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

The discussion of research at primarily undergraduate institutions often begins and ends with a discussion of the benefits for students. It’s generally understood that research at these schools helps students build critical thinking skills, fosters a foundation for the scientific process, and creates hands-on classroom experiences.

While these are true outcomes, they undervalue what research at undergraduate institutions contributes to the advancement of scientific knowledge. In short, some in the scientific community are dismissive of this research at primarily undergraduate institutions.

They don’t doubt the benefits it offers students, but when it comes to scientific innovation, it’s best to leave that to professionals at the flagship institutions.

Such thoughts couldn’t be more misguided. Our Bucknell University team surveyed the h-index (a measurement that describes the productivity and impact of a researcher) of chemistry faculty from 22 highly selective undergraduate institutions.

This limited sampling of significant research impacts points to much broader accomplishments by primarily undergraduate institutions. ‘Can’t be done by undergraduates’ These impacts have been made despite the unique challenges undergraduate institutions face.

For example, researchers believed a manuscript was more likely to be declined from high-profile journals without review because of their institution. Some researchers perceived that if the same manuscript had been submitted under the name of a PhD laboratory, it would have more likely proceeded to peer review.

Also, researchers experienced negative feedback on grant applications and manuscripts that was not based on any of their findings—but rather on the mere involvement of undergraduates. “This work can’t be done by undergraduates” was a familiar refrain.

Quality over quantity

Despite these setbacks, undergraduate institutions have many strengths to further scientific exploration, such as committing internal support to research as a part of the institutional mission.

Perhaps the most valuable strength is a low-stakes environment to foster publishing research. While many institutions include research expectations in faculty evaluation, teaching loads and high service commitments are priorities.

Since faculty members are conducting research because they want to, rather than because they have to, undergraduate institutions actually value having fewer, high-quality papers, rather than emphasizing a high rate of publishing.

Research without pressure

Primarily undergraduate institutions also offer the ability to focus on fundamental research at a time when grants and funding are offered with the expectation of specific returns on investment.

A recent report of scientists from MIT noted that public funding for basic inquiry has dropped significantly in research institutions, damaging innovation in the United States.

While it does happen from time to time, undergraduate institutions are not pressured to generate intellectual property, spawn startup companies, or collaborate with private sector industries. Instead, these valued outcomes happen organically, not out of career pressures.

A great strength of American higher education is the diversity of institutional types. All schools can make a unique contribution to the scientific community.

What is disheartening, however, is the mindset that one is more valuable than the other. Instead of an either/or mindset, we should value the contributions of both.

Research at PUIs accomplishes far more than merely training the scientists of tomorrow. It is also making an impact today.

David Rovnyak is professor of chemistry at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. George Shields is provost and professor of chemistry at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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