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Research as Service

It is common for faculty to assess their contribution to the university and their profession along three dimensions – teaching, research, and service. These roughly correspond to the three central goals of all universities – formation of their students, original inquiry and discovery, and advancement of the common good.

“Service” at most universities consists of administrative duties associated with the shared governance of the academy. This includes leadership and membership on the various committees common to an academic unit (e.g., curriculum, graduate admissions, seminar committees), as well as membership on university committees (e.g., school executive committees, presidential task forces). It reflects service to one’s profession, through committee and elected offices of national and international associations. Finally, it concerns community outreach – how have the candidates contributed their expertise to improvements for the general public.

For Jesuit universities, the service dimension has an added goal of aid to disadvantaged populations and the poor; indeed, a social justice mission is explicit in such universities. Land grant universities also tend to have more explicit goals involving community service, quite independent of their education and research mission. Such service is much more oriented to groups outside the university than the service of academic administration. Most Jesuit universities have ongoing opportunities for faculty and students to directly serve the community (e.g., tutoring in underserved neighbors, health clinics, legal advisory services).

This arbitrary differentiation of teaching, research, and service increasingly seems ill-suited to the lives of many of my colleagues. I’ve written about the movement toward integrating research and teaching more fully. Such research-based courses are beloved by students and give faculty members the chance to integrate two parts of their lives.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable with the stark separation between research and service. Georgetown’s service to the common good must be exercised as a university. That is the type of institution that we are. Many faculty represent fields that cannot have direct impact on issues of social justice. Most faculty, however, are pursuing agendas that can have large indirect benefits to the common good. For example, our colleagues in the basic sciences that pursue discoveries about the mechanisms that affect human organ performance may not directly improve the health of anyone. However, the amelioration of human health conditions may not be possible without their discoveries. When asked for reasons why they’ve chosen to use their knowledge and skills in the way they have, they will often note their hopes for indirect beneficial effects on humanity. Similarly, a mathematician using knowledge and skills to model climate change can be using his/her knowledge in hopes of informing policy for improvement of the earth’s future state. An economist who studies the impact of education on income can be motivated by hopes of extending the benefits of formal education to disadvantaged groups. A poet can produce words that motivate action towards the common good.

In short, scholarship can be conducted in service of the common good, with the goal of improving the state of the poorest among us. Universities collectively serve the common good when the research questions pursued by their faculty and students can be a piece of effective action to serve these needs. Some of our expertise directly serves; other fields of knowledge can only indirectly serve. Nearly all our scholarly work, however, can be part of the solution.

8 thoughts on “Research as Service

  1. For all the reasons articulated, that is why the National Science Foundation judges research based on intellectual merit AND broader impact.

  2. What is the ” common good ” which poetry can advance ? Although there are poets whose themes share insights on matters also familiar to social activism, I would submit that poets — and artists of either media as well — can advance the common good by expanding the lens of spiritual intuition and inviting us to embrace higher-plane vision.
    By the same token, those of us who work in the field of foreign languages can serve the common good by opening windows on to other cultures and thereby strengthening our common human bonds.

  3. Good thoughts. It brings to mind some of the programs in Child and Adolescent psychiatry which entail teaching, service and research about delivering mental heath , education, early interventions and services to the Washington’s under served . The leader of those efforts Dr Matt Biel , head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, was recently awarded the prestigious Aspen Institue Fellowship for those three who have greatly improved services for the underserved poor. I know this is a social science so it’s much easier to combine the teaching ,research, and service efforts but I agree this should be the goal for all endeavors at our jesuit institution.

    • Soory! . A typo. . For those” leaders” not those three as I think about seven or so got this year’s award. I certainly don’t want to create fake news at an academic institution .

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