The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scientific research needs the humanities, the president of a technical university says

Edward Guiliano, PhD, president of New York Institute of Technology, writes about why we should humanize science.   

Washington just made a new commitment to science. The 2016 federal spending bill increases financing for the National Institutes of Health by almost $2 billion, a nearly 7 percent increase. Science spending at NASA and the Department of Energy will receive similar bumps, and the National Science Foundation’s budget will jump by 1.6 percent.

This is welcome news, as these agencies and the researchers they support all across the nation have been treading water for years.

But revolutionary innovation depends on more than robust financing. It also requires doctors, engineers and researchers to embrace the humanities. Indeed, the world’s biggest challenges — whether economic, environmental, technological or physical — demand critical thinking, empathy, cultural literacy and creativity. These skills are cultivated through an education that embraces the humanities.

One distinctive characteristic of America’s higher education system is the “core curriculum”; most colleges and universities mandate about a third of an undergraduate’s coursework include a broad range of non-major courses. These distribution requirements are meant to ensure that students are exposed to great and diverse ideas beyond their own field of study.

The most successful tech companies depend on employees who had this grounding in the humanities. Apple’s often-cited late-CEO Steve Jobs attributed much of his company’s success to collaboration between designers and computer scientists, famously noting, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Other examples abound. Consider Katie Hall, the chief technology officer at WiTricity, a start-up developing wireless energy technology to power and charge phones, appliances and electric cars. When Hall first witnessed the company’s experimental technology, she instantly recognized an opportunity to help people whose lives depend on implanted medical devices. Hall and her team partnered with a medical device manufacturer to develop a heart pump that can be recharged wirelessly, eliminating the need for intrusive operations to switch out old pumps.

This way of thinking — the desire to improve the human experience through science — is often inspired by the humanities. Indeed, collegiate humanities programs often include unconventional learning experiences that help make students more socially aware and civic-minded. These programs also help students develop the analytical skills needed in today’s workforce.

At the Yale School of Medicine, for example, students must take a trip to a museum to study paintings. The requirement is designed to improve observation and empathy.

Likewise, my school, New York Institute of Technology, runs a quarterly photography contest for our medical students centered on a different theme, such as “hands and touch,” designed to help them to think creatively and build sensitivity from different perspectives.

There is little doubt that this is particularly important for today’s physicians. Practicing observation and enhancing creativity helps strengthen connections to patients, which improves overall care and ensures patients get healthy faster.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, determined that lung cancer patients responded more positively to the directions of physicians who were empathetic. Another tracked 20,000 diabetic patients and found that those cared for by compassionate physicians had significantly fewer complications from diabetes.

NYIT also offers a minor in medical humanities so undergraduates can approach medicine and public health from a humanities perspective. It includes a literature course to stretch students’ imaginations and expose them to new ideas about illness and society.

Students have responded enthusiastically. One of our aspiring doctors observed, “As a physician, it is often forgotten that people are people and they have their own stories. Physicians look at patients based on their vitals and diagnoses. These classes have taught me to look at everything holistically, from their culture to their financial situations.”

Other universities known for engineering and science are also strengthening their commitment to the humanities.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, students are required to dedicate 25 percent of their class time to non-STEM subjects and complete at least eight liberal arts courses. Stanford University recently introduced two joint majors: English and computer science, and music and computer science.

If STEM fields are about exploring essential physical truths, the humanities are about developing the capabilities for such inquiries. They discipline the mind for reason, critical analysis and expressive communication.

Of course we need science, technology, engineering and mathematics to plumb the mysteries of the universe on both the macro and nano scales. But we need the humanities to engage and inspire. Everyone needs to feel the power and beauty of the human experience, especially the scientists who design our future.