A Thank You to the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program

The vampire bat project has two recent appearances in the press: The Scientist and The Examiner.

I just returned from the Conference of Ford Fellows, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year. My research is supported by a large number of individual donors and organizations. But my living stipend of $1666/month is provided by the Ford Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organization established by the family of the Ford Motor Company. Their fellowships program supports students and postdocs in higher education, typically the recipients are under-represented minorities from non-wealthy, non-academic family backgrounds who are interested in issues of social justice and social change.

I want to thank the Ford Foundation Fellowship program for its generous support and for flying me out to these conferences. Programs like this have gone a long way in transforming the culture and face of academia. The terms “scholar” and “school” come from greek schole which means “leisure” because scholars were people who were wealthy enough to spend time learning things rather than having to work for a living. Universities historically consisted almost solely of wealthy white males dressed in suits. Today, education is for everyone, schools are now hotspots for diversity, and professors wear blue jeans.

These conferences are inspiring for me. I am especially surprised by the number of distinguished and prolific professors I meet, many from immigrant families or inner-cities who got their start at community colleges and somehow emerged from some of these unlikely backgrounds to do important work at Stanford or Harvard.

This is the only conference where I have in-depth discussions with people in the social sciences and humanities. These interactions often challenge and change the way I look at the world. For instance, one person at the conference pointed out that, in academia, we focus on recruiting the very best students with the most experience, best academic “pedigree”, and hence greatest chance of future success. Of course. But, he asked,  isn’t this analogous to a hospital that only takes the healthiest patients, and then judges its success based on the number of patients who leave healthy? I thought about that for awhile.

In theory, academics are expected to be involved in three areas: research, teaching, and service. But we are mainly hired based on our research. The Ford Foundation drills into its fellows the importance of service, as a meaningful social activity and a vital reason why scientists are supported by society to have the great privilege of dedicating our lives to study what we love. Of course, we are urged to work harder in our research as well. In this sense, the Ford Fellows is yet another academic family putting social pressure on us to publish or perish. At one point, they even asked those of us who published an article in the last year to stand and be applauded. haha.

Sometimes I wonder if I deserve the Ford Foundation’s support. I’m one of the few fellows working on something that has little direct application to human life. Many Ford Fellows work on issues of social change– to make the world a better place. People sometimes ask me how studying vampire bats helps people. The honest answer is: I don’t know, without massive speculation, if it does or how it could.

But allowing some massive speculation, I think all the little bits of science always add up to a whole that has undeniable value. Individual scientists typically produce work that has no obvious current material or social value, or has, at best, uncertain value in the distant future, or has value that is purely aesthetic. But I believe that the richly beautiful, intricately complex, and stupefyingly wondrous view of the world that emerges from these efforts, stands itself among the greatest scientific gifts to the world. There is also the moral values of the Enlightenment (such as freedom, evidence-based reasoning, and mutual cooperation for a common good) which underly and are spread through science. I think that there is good evidence that reason and scientific thinking are under-appreciated factors behind much of the social progress that has reduced violence and improved social equality over human history.

Since the reverse case is typically emphasized, we also sometimes forget that many “deep” moral problems have scientific and technological solutions that can make a difference without having to resort to resolving  perennial, philosophical issues. Perhaps the future wellbeing of nonhuman animals will be better safeguarded by artificial meat rather than universal vegetarianism. Finally, in the next few decades, I expect that science will give us valuable and relevant knowledge about our own moral instincts and intuitions: what are they and how do they work?

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