The 2019 Nobel Prizes were announced this week, and all the hard science prizes went to university professors. Universities are producing a lot of trail-blazing, incredibly valuable work, but you would never know that from what the public thinks about them. Public opinion of higher education is sinking fast. According a Gallup poll, no institution in America has seen its public standing decline as steeply as higher education did from 2015 to 2018. While Republicans have the dimmest view of higher education, Democrats and independents have been losing confidence in it as well. Across the political spectrum, fewer than half of American adults have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education.

In some ways, it’s little wonder. Universities have been getting hammered as unaffordable bastions of elitism who favor the children of big donors. (And this was before the big college admissions scandal.) They are criticized for both failing to protect students from sexual assault and failing to provide due process to students who are accused of sexual assault. Universities are seen as intolerant, narrow-minded minions of political correctness and as ineffectual eggheads who don’t prepare their students for the pragmatic rigors of the real world. They are faulted for lack of diversity, and they are sued over their efforts to increase diversity. There is truth to all of these criticisms, but this picture leaves out what makes universities great.

This week the Nobel Prize Committees announced the 2019 Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature and Peace. (There is also a prize in economics but it is not technically a Nobel Prize.) Given the bruising time that universities have had of it lately, this seems like an opportune moment to appreciate the ways in which universities, which are the Enlightenment’s greatest legacies, are truly magnificent.

The three hard science Nobel Prizes went to nine people, all of whom are university professors. They remind us of the invaluable contributions that universities make to the pursuit of knowledge, even when that knowledge does not lead to short-term profits.

The Nobel Prize in physics went to James Peebles, a professor emeritus at Princeton University whose theory of particles of “cold dark matter” changed the way that scientists understand the universe. Their gravitational force accounts for the great swirling galaxies that populate the universe. The idea seemed fanciful at first, but a good deal of evidence has supported it over the ensuing decades. As a result of Peebles’ work, we have a much deeper, more accurate understanding of the forces and things that shape our universe.

Peebles split the prize with Michel Mayor, a professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Geneva, and Didier Queloz, a professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University and at the University of Geneva. They made the first discovery of an “exoplanet”—a planet orbiting a star other than the Sun. Since their 1995 discovery, thousands of such exoplanets have been discovered. As with dark matter, there is no obvious commercial use for such information and without scientific research at universities, these discoveries would probably have remained unmade.

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Medicine went to William G. Kaelin Jr., professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham & Women’s Hospital Harvard Medical School, Gregg L. Semenza, professor of genetic medicine at Johns Hopkins, and Peter J. Ratcliffe, the director of clinical research at the Francis Crick Institute in London and director of the Target Discovery Institute at Oxford. They won the prize for describing how cells sense and respond to changing oxygen levels by switching genes on and off. Cells are sensitive organisms that die if their internal oxygen level is not just right. As a result of this trio’s effort we now have a much better understanding of how cells maintain the right balance. Eventually, this will probably lead to medical advances in treating major illnesses such as cancer and anemia. But universities, unlike the for-profit industry, are willing to investigate questions that produce basic scientific knowledge well before they produce profits.

The 2019 Nobel Prize for Chemistry shows how misleading the metaphor of the “Ivory Tower” can be. It was awarded to three professors who worked both in private industry and major universities, cross-pollinating knowledge and expertise between them. M. Stanley Whittingham, a professor at SUNY Binghamton University, John B. Goodenough, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Akira Yoshino, a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya, Japan, made pioneering advances in battery technology. As The York Times reported: “The three researchers’ work in the 1970s and ’80s led to the creation of powerful, lightweight and rechargeable batteries used in nearly every smartphone or laptop computer, and in billions of cameras and power tools. Astronauts on the International Space Station rely on them, and engineers working on renewable energy grids often turn to them. By storing electricity generated when sunlight and wind are at their peak, lithium-ion batteries can reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy sources and help lessen the impact of climate change.”

It is also worth noting that five of these nine Nobel Prize winning university professors work at American universities. In worldwide rankings, American universities always dominate the list of the top 50 or 100 universities.

The creation of knowledge by universities is not limited to the hard sciences. Social scientists in political science, sociology, economics and psychology also produce first rate work. The New York Times columnist David Brooks delights in highlighting some of their most interesting work in his annual Social Science Palooza series. (For example, it turns out that good fences really do make good neighbors and that Title IX has had a lot of affects that no one would have guessed!)

Like all major institutions, American universities have a lot to answer for. They should be more affordable, less narrow-minded politically, do better on free speech and due process, handle sexual assault cases better, and handle diversity issues more transparently. And to be fair, many universities are making real efforts to do better on most of these fronts. For now, on this Nobel Prize week in which so many professors are being recognized for their truly trail-blazing work, let’s hear three cheers for our beleaguered but magnificent universities!

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