“Dual use” is a term in my field, International Relations. Very simply put, it refers to the use of an item or technology for civilian and military purposes. Examples can be nuclear technology or satellites. One can use nuclear technology in order to build nuclear reactors for energy generation or to diagnose and treat illnesses in medical sciences (civilian use) or simply to build a bomb (military use). It is possible to launch into orbit a satellite monitoring the weather events on Earth (civilian use) or a satellite which the troops on ground use (let’s say for GPS) to accurately conduct their operations.
Although different in character, I believe academia also has dual uses: scientific and capitalistic. First and foremost, academia is a place where scientific research is conducted, where new theories, new methods, techniques, and applications are developed. In this role, the academia is responsible both for progress and innovation for the sake of pursuing the scientific truth, and thus contributes to humanity, while sharing this progress and innovation with the students and giving them the latest information. The symbolic image of academia in its scientific guise would be the mad professor, who has disconnected himself from the rest of the world. This image, although a bit weird, is mostly seen as noble and in this picture the students are those knowledge-hungry types who would enjoy being a part of academia.
Second, the academy is also a place where students are trained for a profession or to get the necessary skills to acquire a job upon their graduation. In this role, the academy is responsible for monitoring the developments in the national and global economy and the local and international job market and for making changes in the academic curriculum so that when their students graduate they can be ready to survive in the highly competitive job market and take part in the demanding professional world. The symbolic image of academia in its capitalistic guise is the student who enrolls in a zillion certificate programs while attending the courses at his university. This image is mostly seen as more in touch with the reality of the present day and in this picture the students try to maximize their profit of attending the university by keeping the vision of the job market conditions they will find themselves in upon graduation.
I am not sure if there ever was a balance between the two uses of academia; however, to me it seems that in the past, the scientific face of academia was more in balance with its capitalistic face and that now there is a change in the opposite direction all across the world. This observation may be truer for the developing countries where, for several reasons which may be the topic of another post, scientific research cannot be afforded to begin with.
There is nothing wrong with preparing the students for better chances in the job market. In the end, many come to universities to have a better future which is partially granted through adoption of a good job. However, risking loss of the scientific base in the meantime must be avoided at all costs. After all, there is no better place to do science than at universities.
This should be where we explore the secrets of Mother Earth and her inhabitants, the Universe and human anatomy, where we contemplate the meaning of our existence, where we dive into the depths of the human psyche, where we think of more effective ways of creating and distributing wealth and better ways of governance among many other things.
I would like to invite everyone to think about what we can do to bring more science and scientific thinking into universities.
Itir is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.