UC Berkeley no ‘arms-length ivory tower,’ research chief says

Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz talked Monday about his vision for research on UC Berkeley’s campus. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally).

As California and the world grapple with rising income inequality and the threat of climate-change-propelled storms, wildfires and rising seas, how can UC Berkeley build a program of research that changes the course of humanity?

That’s the question Randy Katz, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, explored Monday in a Campus Conversation, where key campus leaders take questions from students, staff and faculty.

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Katz, a professor of computer science who helped develop many of the wireless tools and fast, reliable computer storage we take for granted today, has served as Chancellor Carol Christ’s top research lieutenant since January.

He painted a picture of UC Berkeley as a place where undergraduate and graduate students alike can learn from faculty who are given the time, space and funding to pursue discoveries that have the potential to shape the world.

“Part of the mission of a 21st century research institution is, in order to train our students to be at the cutting edge of new knowledge, they should be taught by the people who are creating that new knowledge,” he said. “Research is extremely important for the educational mission, and to a large extent this is why the best and the brightest in California want to come to Berkeley to study.”

Research is extremely important for the educational mission, and to a large extent this is why the best and the brightest in California want to come to Berkeley to study.”

– Randy Katz

Research into vexing real-world issues like equity, disease, climate change and artificial intelligence can connect UC Berkeley to California and help ensure the public university continues to serve the larger society, he said.

“The university is not an arms-length ivory tower creating knowledge for its own sake. It is embedded in an ecosystem … to create an educated workforce, to create the people who can think about new industries, to support the new industries and to have the kind of regional economic benefit that a great university has and should have,” he said.

But, Katz acknowledged, years of budget deficits at UC Berkeley haven’t always made that work easy. There’s a backlog of maintenance work, and many departments are eager for new equipment or staff support.

Without increased state support, new funding must come from philanthropy and, in some cases, corporate support of research, he said, adding that UC Berkeley will always strenuously guard the academic independence of researchers.

Randy Katz and Dan Mogulof talk

Katz spoke and took questions for an hour on Monday, with Dan Mogulof moderating. (UC Berkeley photo by Hulda Nelson)

“Companies are asking us to solve the problems that they do not know how to solve,” he said. “That’s a fantastic way to understand (this idea of) applied research.”

Katz pointed to a program by BP to fund research into biofuels and an effort by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to unite UC Berkeley, UCSF and Stanford with the goal of “ending all human disease within two generations” as examples of successful research partnerships.

“I sense an appetite in our research community to not just stop at understanding the problem, but take it all the way to doing something in partnership … to address some of these issues,” he said.

The Campus Conversations will continue with Vice Chancellor for University Development and Alumni Relations Julie Hooper on November 14 and Chancellor Carol Christ at the semester’s final event on December 12. More details are available at campusconversations.berkeley.edu