Public universities nationwide are facing challenging decisions in response to budget cuts. In the current economic climate, university administrators must consider the long-term implications of their decisions. These decisions will greatly impact the future of these institutions and the quality of research and education they provide. For example, at the University of Florida (UF), Dean Cammy Abernathy needs to cut $1.7 million from the College of Engineering budget. Her proposed solution is to dismantle the computer science department. The department's graduate and research programs would be transferred to marginally-related departments. All funding for teaching assistants would be eliminated, and the computer science department would transform into a teaching-only department.
The immediate effect of this plan is likely to be the end of computer science research. The conversion into a teaching-only department with no research will drive the faculty to other universities. To do otherwise would be career suicide for these academicians. Without their teaching assistantships, many graduate students will be financially forced to prematurely end their educations. As a result, computer science research at the university will come to a halt.
Computer science is not just the development of programs and everyday applications that people have come to rely on to stay informed, busy or in touch. It goes beyond that, way beyond. Computer science takes on problems facing us today and in the future and seeks to find solutions using the newest and most innovative approaches in the field.
At a school like that of UF, the long-term effect of losing computer science research will be felt across all disciplines. Computer science is quickly becoming an integral component of interdisciplinary research with non-computer fields. My own research at the University of Florida is in improving medical education by creating virtual patients. This research does not fit neatly into any other engineering box other than that of computer software. Computer science research is also powering the rapidly growing field of bioinformatics, greatly expanding our knowledge of genetics and producing new drugs.
Such computer science research cannot thrive in electrical engineering or other engineering departments. This research is so distinct that in many ways it no longer fits in the College of Engineering or Liberal Arts and Sciences, a computer science department's typical two homes. This has been recognized by far-sighted universities such as Georgia Tech. In 1988, Georgia Tech raised the discipline to college status, thus creating a College of Computing. The College of Computing focuses on using computer science to solve real-world problems. It fosters both interdisciplinary and classic computer science research.
Computer science research is not an island. It does not stand alone in an ocean and seek to independently solve strictly computer science problems. Computer science is far-reaching, seeking to help solve very real and urgent issues.
Talking with a friend, another computer scientist, he stated that he isn't building the finest hospital, digging the well that provides clean water to citizens of a a third-world country, or developing clean energy. I quickly pointed out to him those things are not for all people to do, but we all have our role to play in the advancement of society and in providing solutions to these global issues. A UF computer science alum and Assistant Professor at Yale University has had a major impact in delivery of radiation for cancer treatment with his computer science research. Other research in the field of computer science will enable faster and safer delivery of clean water through wells built in impoverished countries and allow for a more efficient delivery of clean energy making it more affordable and feasible for mass market. Computer science may not be the face of these solutions, but it has a huge impact on how they are implemented.
Even in troubled economic and political times, it is imperative that when faced with these types of challenges, we do not cut, but continue to enhance research in an area which will guarantee the U.S. continues to move forward in scientific advancement.
The University of Florida is the state's flagship research institution. Students and faculty expect to come to a world-class institution that fosters intellectual discourse and academic research. It seems counter-productive to take step backwards by cutting a program that most forward-thinking institutions are looking to enhance even when facing budget constraints.
Losing the computer science department will severely hamper research in all departments at the University of Florida. As shown in the examples above, research in all fields are growing more dependent on computer science research, therefore, UF will have to depend on collaboration with other universities to support research in all fields. This will make it more difficult to obtain funding from sources such as the National Science Foundation, which itself narrowly escaped budget cuts for 2012. Computer science research should be UF's future, not its past.
These are undeniably hard times, and cuts to public education funding are in my opinion short-sighted.
When elected officials make education funding a political issue, forcing educational institutions to make difficult decisions, it is the duty of university administrators to be far-sighted and choose the correct areas to make cuts. I do not envy them in their positions, but I hope they will make the decisions with the least long-term damage. In the University of Florida's case, I hope the Dean sees the future of research in all departments at the university is worth more than a mere $1.7 million.
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