UC President Janet Napolitano “spread[s] the gospel of basic research” and alternative careers for trainees

Graduate Division

“I promised that I would get up every day and serve as the best advocate I could be for UC… The fundamental responsibility of the President of the University of California is to make the connection between the institution and the people it serves—not just students, not just professors or staff members, but all of society,” wrote UC President Janet Napolitano in an essay published in Inside Higher Ed on September 30, exactly one year after she began leading the UC system.

That same afternoon, President Napolitano held a press conference with student journalists from across the UCs to discuss her plans for her second year at the helm. She addressed concerns about everything from tuition to chancellor salary to the plight of first generation students to fossil fuel divestment and carbon neutrality. Importantly for UCSF trainees, she allayed fears about graduate students and postdoctoral scholars getting lost in the sea of undergraduates and reaffirmed her outspoken advocacy for basic research.

When asked how the UC Office of the President (UCOP) plans to help UCSF, unique among the UCs in scope and demographics, in its mission of advancing health worldwide, President Napolitano noted the UCSF mug on her desk and said, “You can’t beat UCSF’s reputation.” Specifically, she talked about the university’s already-stellar reputation in basic research and the applications that are sure to come of it, citing in particular the multi-campus brain mapping project and UC Ventures, an independent fund that invests in projects stemming from UC research in order to “complement and supplement…and spread the gospel of basic research.”

Despite initially “fac[ing] a steep learning curve,” President Napolitano may become the advocate for public research universities and basic research in general that academics wish all policy makers could be. “While there are lots of veins and capillaries in higher education, public research universities are the aorta,” she said during her keynote address at the NYT Schools for Tomorrow conference earlier in September. “They pump the blood of innovation, transformation, and knowledge creation in the modern day American society.”

She cited basic research in particular as “the lifeblood of any institution engaged in the creation of new knowledge.” While applied research may directly lead to cures for diseases or solutions to world hunger, none of these things would be possible without basic research to set the foundations.

Equally important are the trainees who conduct this research. In her first year, President Napolitano worked on two initiatives directed towards graduate students ($5 million added to existing and new fellowships to increase underrepresented minority students pursuing PhDs at UC) as well as postdoctoral scholars (President’s postdoctoral fellowship program to support new faculty).

Much of the current discussion at graduate schools throughout the country, however, focuses on the shortage of careers in academia after training and the difficult choices PhD students and postdoctoral fellows must make about their future careers. Synapse asked President Napolitano for her thoughts on how trainees should approach the next phase of our lives.

In response, she noted the “need for career training” for trainees to pursue non-academic careers. “There are large employers in the Bay Area looking for smart people… We need to increase the aperture for graduate students and support the ones who want to stay in academia as well as the ones who do not.”