Making Room for a Moonshot

Kevin Guskiewicz

Curiosity is at the heart of a good education. It’s also the driving force behind our country’s world-leading academic research, thanks to a distinctly American vision for innovation and discovery.
“Truly creative scholarship and science can only take place in an atmosphere in which people with talent are given latitude to consider ideas, to push against orthodoxy, and to explore the unknown,” writes Jonathan Cole in his seminal history of The Great American University. ”Societies that create conditions for free inquiry, protecting their scientists and scholars from ideological bullies, are apt to produce more profound and significant discoveries, and they are more likely to have truly distinguished universities producing pathbreaking original work.”
It’s a strikingly libertarian idea, and Cole points out that protections for free inquiry on campus developed alongside stronger protections for free speech in our society. The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work if there are top-down restrictions on the kind of ideas you can share or explore. When Cole Zoomed into our American Professoriate class a few weeks ago, he talked about the value of blue-sky research, the edge-of-the-envelope scholarship that could lead to a major breakthrough — or lead nowhere at all.
“How many of you know the name, Stanley Prusiner?” Cole asked as a few hands went up. Prusiner was a researcher at the University of California San Francisco who toiled away for years on a wild theory about disease-causing proteins, a phenomenon dismissed by most of his peers across the country. It was generally understood that bacteria and viruses are the agents that cause disease, and Prusiner’s focus on proteins looked like a useless tangent. “Then came Mad Cow Disease, and suddenly everyone cared about Prusiner’s work,” Cole told our class of graduate researchers. The stubborn, inquiry-driven Prusiner had discovered prions, a new category of a pathogen with huge implications for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative illnesses. It earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
But for every world-changing, Nobel-worthy idea, there are a lot of dead ends. And that’s a hard pill to swallow, this notion that the public will help fund open-ended research and politicians will exert little sway in where it goes. You have to tolerate wrong turns, controversial ideas, and bouts of public skepticism. But when it works, the returns are amazing. This month, the UNC System is honoring Carolina’s Dr. Ralph Baric with its highest award for his years of patient work on coronaviruses, research that helped pave the way for treatments and vaccines when covid-19 became a worldwide emergency. 
I think of research universities as America’s venture funds — the places where our society goes to make ambitious bets about what the future can or should look like. Not all of them pay off, but the ones that do result in medical breakthroughs, life-changing technologies, and a better understanding of the society we all share. And Carolina has proven to be a very good bet over the years. We’re now the 6th-largest recipient of federal research dollars in the country, and those government grants combined with other sources of outside funding amount to more than $1.1 billion in sponsored research every year.
One of the things we talked about in class is how you operate on that kind of scale without losing your creative edge. Tenure plays a role, protecting scholars who are pursuing controversial ideas. A healthy mix of grants, private gifts, and university investment plays a role, ensuring that researchers have multiple options for supporting their work.
And thick-skinned leadership plays a role, given the inevitable criticism that comes from hosting a lot of different (and strident) voices under one roof. “The governing impulse of university leaders is a pathological (and essentially nonpartisan) fear of any threat to their institutions’ reputations,” wrote UNC historian Molly Worthen in The New York Times this month. “If university leaders would hang back more often from the temptation to act, to issue a public statement every time someone on campus got outraged at someone else, that would go a long way to protecting the academic freedom of everyone, tenured or not.”
I’m glad we live in a society that celebrates ambitious, moonshot thinking in business, technology, arts, and culture. We need to make sure there’s plenty of room for it on campus, too.


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