A friend who is presently on sabbatical has started a blog about his academic experiences in primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI). It is called Sabbatical Epistles. He mentions a key phrase that is being batted around; it is Transformative Research. According to the NSF, transformative research is-

research that has the capacity to revolutionize existing fields, create new subfields, cause paradigm shifts, support discovery, and lead to radically new technologies.

The context of the use of this phrase was that research funding at PUI’s will increasingly be put to the merit test of transformative research. As such, research into chemical synthesis at PUI’s is especially at risk of not qualifying for funding. I suppose the concern is that multistep synthesis projects for undergrads requires lots of time and skills that undergrads do not have.

Who is against transformative research? It is like motherhood and apple pie. Everybody wants to fund or be part of this kind of effort. We should always ask that research funds be put towards this end. But there is more to it than just an affirmation of meritocracy.

What I sense is that the golden age of undergraduate research programs may be fading into some darker period of scant interest.  The scientific establishment continues to grow larger with each passing year. And in parallel, major research universities continue to add programs, courses, grad students, faculty, bricks and mortar, and administration based on the allocation of grant money. Big institutions depend on grant money to a large extent. 

As grant money gets tighter, program requirements will increasingly filter the small fish from the big fish. Large institutions have many alumni in influential positions and in the end, the programmatic mind-set of large research institutions in conjunction with the definition of success as understood by administrators of first tier schools will win the day. 

There is a pecking order to this. A kind of snobismus. And undergraduate research is not too high in the pecking order.  In relation to undergraduate research in the area of synthesis, in most schools this is the only opportunity for an undergrad to get some advanced experience in the synthetic arts. If you have tried to hire a synthetic savvy BA/BS, you know they are hard to find. In my experience, most synthetikkers want to go to grad school. They want more.

Just in case anybody is listening, I want to make a pitch for continued and stronger funding of undergraduate research. As a student, it changed the course of my life in terms of growth and development. As a former mentor of undergraduate researchers as a post doc and prof, I can say that nearly all of my students are now either PhD’s or MD’s. They are all contibuting greatly to the benefit of our society in industry, teaching hospitals, and academia. I am proud of them and I’d do it over in a heartbeat.  The pedagogy isn’t in dispute, I suppose. But the method of funding is.

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