University administrators held two faculty town halls last week to gauge opinions about the University-wide Science Strategy Committee’s report, an 81-page document released over the summer that identified top priorities for science investment at Yale for years to come. At the town halls — one for the School of Medicine faculty and another for the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences — attendees expressed mixed opinions, praising the interdisciplinary nature of the priorities but criticizing their exclusion of certain areas of study.
The committee was established by University Provost Benjamin Polak in January 2017 and convened that year to develop a strategy to bolster the sciences at Yale. Since the report’s release this June, the University has been seeking feedback from the Yale community before moving forward with the priorities outlined in the report. In addition to the town halls, administrators have also created an online feedback form for faculty to share their thoughts and suggestions.
“We have no doubt that the science-and-engineering piece of the academic strategy is the boldest part of what we’re trying to do, and we are delighted that we can have sessions like this where we can get your reactions to it,” University President Peter Salovey said at the town hall on Tuesday. “I don’t think there is anything else we are doing on this campus over the next few years that is more important than this.”
David Schatz, the chair of immunobiology at the medical school, praised the committee’s identification of broad-reaching areas that could have high impact. He added that there exists strong synergy between the initiatives themselves, highlighting the intersection between neuroscience and inflammation science in particular.
One of the largest remaining unknowns, Schatz said, is how to plan the physical space and organization of the new initiatives outlined in the priorities in order to make the greatest interdisciplinary impact.
Several faculty members asked the administrators how they plan to increase collaboration among the three science campuses at Yale, given the interdisciplinary nature of the priorities.
“In terms of communication, we’re building strength in the Provost’s Office to more systematically communicate and build community across the research enterprise,” said Peter Schiffer ’88, the vice provost for research.
The report contained four overarching investments, one of which urged greater support for graduate students. This cross-cutting investment is crucial and could transform the University’s standing as a research institution, said Alanna Schepartz, a Sterling professor of chemistry.
Still, some in attendance questioned the lack of emphasis on other Yale affiliates. Nadia Ayala-Lopez, a postdoctoral fellow and chair for the Yale Postdoctoral Association, suggested that greater support for postdoctoral associates should be included in the University-wide strategy. These researchers would benefit from greater professional development, grants and mentorship opportunities, she said.
Other comments focused on the administration’s thoughts on department structure, commercialization and reduced federal funding.
While several of the questions posed at the town hall on Tuesday centered on the implementation of the report’s top priorities, the audience at the Friday town hall — composed of faculty members in the STEM departments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — questioned the priorities themselves.
Michael Fischer, a computer science professor, criticized the report for its lack of focus on improving education, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He also alleged that the committee focused on only one area of STEM — science.
“In fact, the report made rather negative statements to engineering and computer science as being supporting fields for ‘real’ disciplines,” Fischer said, referring to the “Engineering + X” and “Computer Science + X” initiatives in the report.
Scott Strobel, the vice president for West Campus planning and program development and the chair of the committee, countered that the committee articulated how implementation of each initiative would affect education. For example, he said, the report recommended that the hiring strategy in computer science be directed toward the training of undergraduates.
In response to Fischer’s second criticism, Strobel said the committee was charged with developing broad ideas that would have impact across schools, rather than identifying what any individual school or department should do. A separate strategic planning process for engineering should take place, he added.
Another computer science professor, Brian Scassellati, said that the report failed to develop any visionary changes — rather, he said, the recommendations will result in only incremental improvements to departments at Yale that have lagged behind those of peer institutions for decades.
The recommendations that the committee outlined are multidisciplinary, spanning Yale’s schools and departments, according to Polak. The priorities were selected based on their potential impact and feasibility, he said.
“I see impact as choosing areas of science that are exciting and can move the dial on human knowledge, while feasibility is comparative advantage — or areas where Yale has particular strength in being the place where the dial is moved,” Polak said.
Salovey said the University is not waiting on all the details and funding to begin transforming STEM at Yale. In addition to recent infrastructure improvements — such as the new Yale Science Building and renovations at Wright Laboratory and Sterling Chemistry Laboratory — the University has also already ramped up its hiring strategy, particularly in the data science and computer science departments.
“This strategic plan is roughly going to be a $100 million addition to expenditure on STEM at Yale. In fundraising terms, it’s equivalent to raising $2 billion. … How are we going to get it done? I don’t have a clue,” Polak said. “But we are going to get all of it done. We’re determined to get this done.”
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