Yale's Resurrection of the Sciences

In 1854 Commodore Mathew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay and began negotiating the opening of Japan to the World. This ended of the Edo period and the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Japan, a xenophobic and proud nation, was not willing to be sectioned off into occupied zones, subject to the whims of European, or at the time, second rate powers like the United States. So, it set into motion a massive plan to reform all portions of its civilization with the intent of becoming a world power in as short order as possible.  

To accomplish this heady goal, Japanese emissaries traveled the globe to examine the best of practices in all walks of life: education, government, military, and manufacturing and install copies of such practices into Japan. Within four decades Japan destroyed the Chinese navy, occupied Manchuria, and conclusively defeated the Russian armies, gaining Port Arthur and the Korean peninsula.  

Yale University is attempting its version of the Meiji Restoration in the sciences. In the article, ‘Big Ideas,’ in the October 2018 Alumni Magazine, it set up the University Science Strategy Committee (USSC) to gain feedback from its faculty and departments across the schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Nursing, Public Health, and Forestry and Environmental Sciences.  

The urgency to determine the direction of sciences at Yale is highlighted by a statement from Sten Vermund, dean of the School of Public Health: “When you think about an optimized infrastructure for science you think about MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Caltech. And Yale isn’t on that list.” (Nor, apparently, is Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley, or USC—which might be added to any capable survey reviewing the universe of scientific study.)

The process collected 350 pages of recommendations from which the USSC culled down to 16 areas. The winners would be blatantly obvious to most subscribers to Popular Mechanics and Science Digest. 

Topping the list is neuroscience. Yale proposes to set up a neuroscience institute with the expressed goal of understanding both ‘the developmental process of the normal brain’ (whatever that is—is Einstein’s brain considered a normal brain?), and ‘the deviations that lead to neurological pathologies.’ This is fine, but virtually every upper tier university has a long-established neuroscience department. Yale believes it will differentiate itself by focusing its institute’s efforts on, “…a question rarely pursued in neuroscience research: what accounts for uniqueness in brains across species?”

What’s additionally strange about this ‘emphasis’ on neuroscience is that Yale already has an emphasis on neuroscience. Right now, the school offers individual departments for neuroscience, cognitive science and psychobiology. Will these departments be transformed by the introduction of an institute? Additionally, Yale claims an institute will enable more cross-departmental efforts—what’s holding it back today? Cornell and USC already have numerous majors that are interdepartmental; why not go to both schools, ask some questions and find out how they manage a process now that Yale is seeking? 

Big idea number two is ‘inflammation science.’ Inflammation causes all kinds of diseases including cancers and autoimmune diseases. The proposed inflammation institute will bring ‘distinct fields of expertise into one building, a place where immunologists can work alongside biochemists and microbe researchers.’ Sounds good, but again, doesn’t it make more sense to figure out how construct an environment that encourages cross disciplinary research?

Data Science and its mathematical foundations is next on the list. Its goal is to study ‘refinements in acquisition and interpretation of data” and creating algorithms ‘more effective and transparent.’ When it comes to managing data Yale could best look at the MMSS program at Northwestern, or similar programs at Carnegie Mellon and Dartmouth, and copy them with the intent of implementation as quickly as possible.  

Quantum Science and the rising importance of Quantum computing is number 4 Big Idea. The initiative recommended three areas of focus: computing, sensors and materials. Good advice to follow would be to go to Stanford’s Applied Physics department for a couple months and try to steal most of the ideas and research you encounter. That’s what everybody else seems to do, and get a couple really good ones, such as the replacement substrate for silicon in the next generation of chips, and there might be a Nobel Prize in the mix. 

The fifth and last big idea is yet another institute to explore ‘links between environmental and evolutionary changes.’

That Yale wishes to better perform in the sciences is good, but what’s a little worrisome is the speed these supposed changes will occur. The report by the USSC has been published, and, the article Big Ideas mentions: “If the committee members prove sufficiently prescient, their fingerprint will be visible in the 2050 course catalogues.” The Meiji Restoration this is not.

Yale’s science initiative, if one wishes to call it that, is more an institutional step—creating institutes rather than looking at the world differently with a creative flare and a formidable curiosity. The USSC strikes as the work of a rather aged institution; as Plato noted, know thyself, and once you recognize your limits, look to others for Yale’s scientific template, and then think big (go for fusion, solve the engineering issues at Fukushima). Planting the world with more institutes in a purblind belief that they’ll create substantive changes is a pipe dream that should go up in smoke.