How science came to Yale

Science at Yale today

Long after Benjamin Silliman brought science to Yale, the university’s liberal arts culture would sometimes relapse into treating the sciences with condescension. Noah Porter, Class of 1831 and president of Yale from 1871 to 1886, lauded Yale’s undergraduate science program in his inaugural address—but also warned that “the new sciences of nature” had “become romantic almost to insanity in their aspirations.” The early-twentieth-century decision to move the sciences from the central campus out to Science Hill was supposed to unify Yale, but didn’t help the sciences. Nor did the shrinking of the engineering school in the later twentieth century. “We had become seriously unbalanced as a university,” D. Allan Bromley, dean of engineering and Sterling Professor of the Sciences, told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2000.

But 15 years ago, then-president Richard Levin ’74PhD set out to change that stepchild tradition, announcing a massive science and technology upgrade. Much of it had to do with updated facilities. Since Levin’s announcement, Yale has gained the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center, the Malone Engineering Center, the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building, and Kroon Hall, home of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

A new Yale biology building, back on track after a recession-induced hiatus, will over the next four years replace the generally unloved 1960s-era Gibbs Laboratory building. Yale has also undertaken significant renovations of Sterling Chemistry Lab and the Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory. Those are all in addition to new science facilities at the medical school.

“One important new thing,” says Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology, “is the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design on the first floor of the Becton engineering building.” Formerly about as lively as the cemetery just opposite, that space has become a campus hotspot, with humanities and science students alike using 3-D printers, the machine shop, and other resources to design musical instruments, build rockets, stage hackathons, invent appropriate technologies for the developing world, and otherwise engage in creative mayhem.

Finally, Girvin cites the 2007 purchase of the 136-acre West Campus as a major milestone. The former pharmaceutical research center has both abundant modern lab space and abundant modern equipment; where the federal Human Genome Project once needed ten years and $1 billion to sequence the first complete human genome, genomic sequencers at the West Campus now crank one out every 20 minutes. The variety of high-end facilities has allowed Yale to create seven new scientific research institutes and to attract new science faculty, both junior and senior.

In some areas, Yale still lags in sheer volume. Take patents: according to the most recent numbers in the Chronicle of Higher Education, during 2009–10 Stanford had 1,944 active patents, MIT 919, and Yale 533. During 2011–12 Yale ranked 27th in total dollars invested by US universities in research and development.

But Yale’s research is of signal quality. The Science Citation Index has consistently ranked Yale engineering papers among the most frequently cited—that is, among the most influential. And the push toward growth in the sciences is showing up in the student body. About a quarter of all undergraduates majored in the sciences back when Levin first announced the science upgrade. That’s now crept up to 29 percent.

How is the science upgrade doing? It will take years before all the results are in. Nevertheless, “there’s a certain buzz,” says Girvin. “This myth that we’re not a science or engineering university is now beginning to be recognized as a myth.”

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