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Serious About the Sciences
With the help of $1 billion for buildings and programs ranging from astronomy to zoology, Yale is attempting to rebalance its educational equation.

Last winter’s announcement by President Richard Levin that the University was embarking on a $500-million construction program to upgrade its science and technology infrastructure was nothing less than a watershed event in Yale history. “We intend for Yale to be on everyone’s short list of the great universities of the world,” said Levin at a packed press conference on January 20 in the Bass Center for Structural and Molecular Biology. “In the 21st century, you can’t stay on that list without excellence in science and engineering.”

The ambitious plan, which calls for the construction of five new buildings—four on Science Hill and one in the nearby engineering complex—and the renovation of many others over the next 20 years, certainly attracted attention, with extensive coverage in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. And no sooner had the buzz from the first press conference died down than the University announced that it would spend an additional $500 million on both new and upgraded research facilities at the School of Medicine.

“Yale is already a national and international center for advancing the frontiers of knowledge,” said Levin."These investments will keep us at the forefront of many areas.”

They will also, notes D. Allan Bromley, dean of engineering and Sterling Professor of the Sciences, put to rest a widely held and deep-seated perception."I think this building program will finally convince people that Yale is indeed serious about science and technology,” says Bromley, who is widely viewed as the chief engineer of the effort. “We had become seriously unbalanced as a University. We’re now moving towards rebalance.”

That seriousness would seem to be self-evident. The University ranks fifth in the dollar amount of National Institutes of Health funding grants it receives, many of its science-oriented departments rank at or near the top in terms of research productivity and the quality of educational opportunities, and about one-quarter of all undergraduates major in a scientific discipline. Still, when many outside observers think about Yale, the most common image to emerge is a university dominated by the humanities and social sciences—and one in which the pursuit of science is seen as more tolerated than celebrated.

It is an old view, born in large part with the creation of the Sheffield Scientific School in 1861. Sheff, as it became known, was developed as an adjunct to the College, a place where students more interested in science and technology than Latin and philosophy could be sent to get their hands dirty. Indeed, President Noah Porter, who led Yale from 1871 to 1886, warned modernists to resist “the watering down of classical education” by inserting into the curriculum “courses in science and other utilitarian subjects.” Today, this view seems hopelessly out of date, but though Sheff was absorbed by Yale in the 1930s and any intellectual segregation is long gone, the feeling that scientists somehow don’t quite belong has lingered.

The fact that Science Hill is so far from the central campus hasn’t helped matters. Nor did the controversial and painful attempts to restructure—some would say “eliminate”—the engineering department in the 1960s and early 1990s.

When President Levin took office in 1993, figuring out precisely where science and technology fit into the University’s priorities was high on his agenda. “It’s terribly important for all students to have a thorough exposure to these subjects,” says Levin. “They’re too much a part of our collective future to be ignored.”

But Levin had another reason to push Yale in this direction. The President is a 1968 Stanford graduate, and he has witnessed first-hand the remarkable economic growth that can result when basic university research is transformed into high technology. As an economist, Levin has also documented this interrelationship. “We have the opportunity to become one of the national centers of excellence in many of the emerging growth areas of both engineering and biotechnology, from combustion and computer chips to pharmaceuticals and medical devices,” he says. “There’s no doubt that our strengths in these areas could benefit the local and regional economy.”

However, before any discoveries could be made, jobs created, or companies spun off, the President had to deal with a dilemma. The University’s budget was in the red, and because of decades of deferred maintenance, Levin had inherited a crumbling campus. “Early in my tenure, we convened planning groups to look at our facilities needs in key areas: athletics, the libraries, the arts, the residential colleges, and on Science Hill,” says Levin. “Planning for science took the longest. It was more complicated and expensive, and there were concerns not just about the final configuration of the Hill, but also about the status of departments and programs over the long period of time when the project was unfolding.”

Coming up with an acceptable compromise was a difficult process. The initial task force, under the direction of Vice President for Finance and Administration Joseph Mullinix (who is resigning this summer; see page 28), focused on buildings, and when that group couldn’t agree on what was necessary, Provost Alison Richard convened a second committee in the fall of 1995 to concentrate on academic planning instead of on bricks and mortar. Directed by Pierre Hohenberg, the deputy provost for science and technology, the group, after discussing its recommendations with the Hillier Group, the Princeton, New Jersey-based architectural consultants who'd worked with the first committee, in 1996 produced a comprehensive plan for Science Hill.

It didn’t fly.

Among the plan’s suggestions for new construction and extensive renovation ($20 million per year for 20 years) were calls for tearing down the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory and building new facilities for the chemistry department further north of its location on Science Hill. Historic preservationists were adamantly opposed to demolishing the laboratory, which was designed by noted architect William A. Delano and built in the early 1920s. And the chemists themselves rebelled, fearing that the move would be tantamount to exile from the center of intellectual life on the Hill.

The committee went back to work and, after factoring in an additional building designed for engineering (its facilities, while linked in spirit, are actually two blocks south of Science Hill) came up with the compromise that was unveiled by President Levin last winter.

“We’re quite satisfied with the arrangement,” says Andrew Hamilton, chemistry department chairman.

So is Pierre Hohenberg. “In our plan, we’ve tried to make Science Hill and the engineering area express both Yale’s ambitions and achievements in science and technology, and its excellence in teaching and research,” he says. “And we want it to become a place where students and scientists alike truly want to be.”

Within roughly ten years, according to the current schedule, the engineering complex will, thanks to a $24 million gift from 1963 engineering graduate John Malone (see page 33), be graced with a new research center at the corner of Prospect and Trumbull streets. The facility is expected to house the engineering department’s major research initiatives in combustion and biomedical engineering. “We’re set to explore all guises of combustion, from what goes on in very large gas turbines to the combustion occurring in tiny micropower units that might run for a month on a drop of gasoline,” says Bromley. “And in biomedical engineering, we’re exploring imaging, biomaterials, bioinformatics, sensors, and genomics, among others.”

During the same time period, Science Hill will see the construction of four new buildings. (Much of the renovation work in both areas is scheduled for the second decade of the plan.) Sterling Chemistry will remain in place, but will be thoroughly refurbished and reconfigured as a teaching laboratory in the sciences. The chemistry department will get a new lab, just north of its current research complex, that will house an ambitious research program in the emerging area of synthetic organic chemistry, the science of making novel molecules that are custom crafted for purposes that may range from attacking cancer cells to increasing electrical conductivity. In addition, the molecular, cellular, and developmental biology department (MCDB), now in the Osborn Memorial Laboratories and the Kline Biology Tower, will move to a building to be constructed in the parking lot east of the J. Willard Gibbs lab. These facilities will be interconnected by a network of bridges and tunnels to create what is being called the “molecular campus.”

An “environmental campus”—a collection of interconnected buildings that will also be linked to those more concerned with the molecular aspects of science—is being created at the bottom of the Hill.Already under construction behind the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Environmental Sciences Facility is designed to house interdisciplinary research and education in the earth and natural sciences. The building will also better preserve the Peabody’s vast collections and make the material more accessible to investigators and undergraduates.

In addition, the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is developing plans for a building on the corner of Prospect and Sachem streets that will be linked to Osborn. The facility will both bring together a faculty scattered throughout the Hill and tighten the connection between the forestry school and the recently inaugurated department of ecology and evolutionary biology, which is headquartered in Osborn.

The forestry structure will also “set a high water mark in terms of great environmental design and sustainability,” says James Gustave Speth, FES dean. “This is going to be Yale’s first 'green' building, and we envision it becoming a center for people with concerns about and interests in the environment, as well as a way to reposition the school and make it an integral part of the College.”

Integrating the various scientific disciplines with each other, and with the humanities and social sciences, is one of the central principles guiding the Science Hill plan. Hohenberg explains that a hallmark of the effort is its emphasis on making it relatively easy for departments and researchers to connect and communicate with one another. “It’s through collaboration and cooperation that new fields emerge,” he says.

The present layout of Science Hill’s widely separated buildings (with the notable exception of the Bass Center, which was designed with science and scientists in mind) is precisely wrong for fostering interdisciplinary enterprise, notes Susan Hockfield, dean of the Graduate School.

“It’s absolutely key that you make physical barriers dissolve,” says Hockfield, who studies brain chemistry in her lab at the medical school and remembers fondly the construction of a bridge over Cedar Street that linked the school’s two main research buildings. “If you have to think about putting on a jacket—and sometimes, if you have to wait for an elevator—you’re less likely to make the effort. But remove the inertial barriers, and you can transform the way science is done.”

To be sure, Science Hill residents will still have to walk from place to place, but the fact that they will eventually be able to navigate without the need for umbrellas and overcoats promises to make collaboration simpler (if no less aerobic). But Joel Rosenbaum, MCDB professor, is not convinced the planned configuration will do the job. In an op-ed piece in the Yale Daily News, Rosenbaum faulted the placement of the buildings, particularly the distance between chemistry and MCDB, saying it did not represent “visionary thinking about where science might be going over the next several decades.”

Most observers are more optimistic, and another part of the development plan addresses a further impediment to interdisciplinary work: the absence of an easily accessible place to eat and socialize. “There’s a sense that Science Hill is Siberia,” says Hohenberg.

A new dining facility, tentatively slated for Gibbs, should make the area more inviting. So will a major landscaping project, to be managed by the forestry school, to plant an assortment of trees and shrubs on Science Hill and recreate what was once known as “Sachem’s Wood.”

However, even with these enhancements to its ambience, Yale’s scientific research center has a geographical problem that many undergraduates, who are required to take science courses to fulfill distribution requirements, find off-putting. Quite simply, it’s a long haul to the Hill, and on a cold or rainy day, it might be easier to stay home than to trek to class. Worse, it might be easier to attempt to avoid the sciences altogether.

That would be tragic, says Allan Bromley. “Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that to 98 percent of the world, high technology is indistinguishable from magic, so if your education doesn’t include a substantial component of understanding about the goals, aspirations, and approaches to thinking of science and technology, you’ve joined that large group and become, in essence, disenfranchised,” Bromley notes. “We need to get more Yale students into science and engineering, as well as more science and engineering into Yale students.”

To deal with the latter concern, the Science Hill plan calls for the construction of two large lecture halls in a location, as yet undetermined, close to the heart of the central campus. Bringing the Hill to students would solve the geographical issue.

But, to alter slightly the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, if you build it, will they come? And if they do, will there be enough money to keep them, and their scientist professors, happy and productive?

Science is expensive, notes Hohenberg, and only the funds for construction have been discussed so far. “I worry that we will build capacity for faculty and students that we cannot support to the degree necessary to exploit the excellence we’ve created,” he says. “There’s an unstated assumption that everything healthy must grow, but I think that can also be seen as an addiction.”

The fertilizer for science is success in the increasingly difficult competition for grants from such government agencies as the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Defense and Energy, as well as from foundations and corporate sources. In the Faculty of Arts and Science in fiscal year 1998 -99, the grants and contracts total exceeded $60 million, and there are efforts to increase that figure significantly, says Hohenberg. Royalties and licensing fees from patents and inventions, particularly those associated with drugs such as Zerit, the anti-AIDS medication that last year netted Yale some $40 million, also represent important sources of income.

A percentage of this money winds up in the Science Development Fund for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and this resource has grown from $1.3 million in 1992 to over $6 million last year. “The SDF is our source of startup funds for recruiting new faculty and of the matching funds that increasingly are required by all funding agencies, both public and private. But the larger the number of programs, the less each program can get out of the pot,” says Hohenberg. “No matter how you look at it, university research isn’t a money machine, and university funds must always supplement whatever comes in from the outside. So if being prudent makes you a curmudgeon, well, I’ll wear that mantle proudly.”

Despite any uncertainties about the future, plans continue to move forward. The foundations for the Environmental Sciences Facility and the CAB are going into the ground, architects are being consulted, and fundraising is under way.

Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, is already gearing up to capitalize on the building initiative. “We’re going to be highlighting the sciences more,” said Shaw, noting that Yale plans to make its presence better known through such efforts as a science-based Web site, more visits by faculty to the nation’s leading science and technology oriented high schools, and increased recruiting involvement by science and engineering alumni. “We won’t, however, be changing our basic message. We’ll still present the sciences in the context of the liberal arts and tell students that while you can get the training in the best facilities imaginable that you need to become an effective scientist or engineer, you’ll also be able to graduate having learned the skills that will make you a fine leader, teacher, and manager. That’s a very attractive message.”

It is one the President would emphasize to anyone concerned that Yale is endeavoring to become CalTech East or MIT South. “We’ll continue to invest in the humanities and social sciences and preserve our distinction in those fields, as well as our historical emphasis on undergraduate education,” says Levin. “But I hope that our billion dollar investment means that the University’s image will change somewhat, and that we’ll be recognized for our excellence in all fields. In science, engineering, and medicine, Yale’s definitely in the game.”  the end


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