September 10, 2002

Rhodes Discusses Science, Academia

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Speaking before a full house in Baker Laboratory yesterday, President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes delivered a lecture entitled, “Science and the Academy” in honor of Moses Passer Ph.D. ’48.

Endowed by the late Passer’s wife, Dorothy, the annual Passer Lecture honors the chemist’s lifelong work. After graduating from Cornell, Passer spent 16 years as a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, where he directed the Peat Research Project.

Beginning in 1964, Passer served as the director of education for the American Chemical Society. By the time he retired in 1987, he had developed a vast array of educational programs geared at encouraging the pursuit of scientific inquiry among students.

Chemistry department chair, Barry Carpenter introduced Rhodes, lauding his, “oratorical skills” and his work since his retirement in 1995.

Rhodes dedicated the bulk of the lecture to commentary on the relationship between science and academia.

“Throughout the early history of science,” Rhodes said, “much of the scientific discovery took place outside the organized structure of the University.”

Only during the last 50 years has science become thoroughly integrated into the academy in the United States. Since the federal government began investing in the sciences during the Depression, science has seen an explosion in academic research.

Rhodes raised concerns about the contemporary trend in universities toward applying scientific methodology to other academic disciplines. This trend has led to increasing, “fragmentation of the campus and super-specialization within disciplines. That methodology might be good for science, but it shouldn’t be unscrupulously applied elsewhere. The meaning of a Shakespeare sonnet cannot be described by the scientific method.”

Rhodes next segued into a discussion of the responsibility of academic scientists both to the larger academic community and to the general public. He underscored a need for science to reclaim its membership in the academic community.

“Academia has been kind to us. It is time for us to support the University in the way that the University has supported us.

To that end, Rhodes had several recommendations for scientists in higher education.

“We should take seriously the wastage of students in the early years of instruction in the sciences,” he suggested. “Only 32 percent of those enrolled in the early courses of science and engineering go on to graduate in those fields.”

This is particularly true, he said of women and minorities, who end up transferring into other disciplines before graduation.

Second, Rhodes recommended that, “we reinvigorate science for non-scientists.” This would involve creating, “comprehensive courses” in partnership with other disciplines.

Rhodes also advocated a reaffirmation of integrity and responsibility within the scientific community, contrasting that potential with the, “corporate irresponsibility” that currently dominates the national scene.

“We must impose discipline and promote integrity without stifling creative scientific pursuit,” Rhodes said.

Once he had expounded on these recommendations, which he described as non-threatening, Rhodes presented, “one radical proposal.”

Science, he said, must accept a role of social responsibility that reaches beyond national borders.

“The benefits of science have produced the very problems that belie it.” These include the global issues of overpopulation, controversies over the use of genetically modified foods and damage to the environment, among others.

Because, “the success of science is breeding the problems we now confront,” Rhodes asked, “do scientists in the University have a responsibility for addressing these problems? Can we respond, but respond in a way that science will not be damaged, removed or politicized?”

In answer to his own question, he proposed the creation of, “a consortium of nations” that could generate ideas and policies to work toward, “sustainable development,” as well as to provide resources for scientific education and research around the world.

Passer, the namesake of the lecture, “would approve of such a venture,” Rhodes said, bringing his talk to a close.

The event marked the start of Rhodes’s first extended return to Ithaca since a hit-and-run accident in Florida last year.

In an interview following the lecture, Rhodes recalled, “I was out early on a Sunday morning, crossing the street on my way to get the newspaper, when I was hit by a van, which unfortunately then took off.”

“I spent two and a half months in the hospital. I had a dozen broken bones,” he added.

Now fully recovered, Rhodes spent nearly an hour after the talk answering questions and discussing contemporary issues concerning science, technology, society and current events with students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Archived article by Erica Gilbert-Levin