Continuing to serve

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Peter Cowhey

Dean Emeritus and Qualcomm Chair Emeritus Peter Cowhey discusses leadership, teaching, and how science, technology and policy are intertwined

Leaders at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) have a history of carrying an outsized role in the campus community, holding an influence and guiding the university far beyond the professional school’s scale. 

One outstanding example of this leadership is Peter Cowhey, dean emeritus, who was recently given the Dickson Award for emeritus faculty service and leadership. The award is a complement to the Revelle Medal, recognizing faculty’s sustained, distinguished and extraordinary service to the campus, which Cowhey won in 2021. 

“It’s an open nomination process by emeritus faculty to recognize in their ranks the people who they think are doing outstanding service, which is pretty broadly defined, whether it’s involving students, university activities or the larger community writ large of the world,” Cowhey said. “Much to my surprise, I was awarded the honor.”

Though Cowhey officially joined the emeritus ranks in 2021, he continues to be involved in a number of ways, such as teaching a digital policy course for GPS students and conducting research for projects within the school’s two leading research centers – the Peter F. Cowhey Center on Global Transformation (CCGT) and 21st Century China Center. Outside of UC San Diego he currently serves as chair of the board of directors for the California Council on Science and Technology, and he recently stepped down after 20 years with the Grameen Foundation USA, the U.S. foundation supporting the work of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus.

“For me, it’s not why do I continue my work, but how could I not continue to be involved? I’ve devoted nearly 20 years of my life to leadership positions at UC San Diego, both as dean of the school and in other roles at the university, and I saw the school grow and change dramatically over those years,” Cowhey said. “I feel a close identity with its continuing mission and its evolution. As much as I felt we accomplished in those years, it’s exciting to watch this institution continually be creative and not just do the cookie cutter thing.”

The ongoing research through CCGT, which examines the driving forces of technology and science and its potential to reshape the world, represents one of the things he cares about most — and a facet of policy GPS should continue to lead in, Cowhey said. 

“It’s all to do with the notion that there is a way in which science and technology and public policy are intertwined, and we have to get that marriage right,” Cowhey explained. “And my involvement in CCGT, the California Council on Science and Technology and the Grameen Foundation is how I will go beyond what is normal and routine for me as a scholar, to try to help with something that I think is fundamental as an ethical challenge to global society.”

One important facet of the U.S. science and technology landscape Cowhey, along with Jacobs School of Engineering Dean Emeritus Robert Conn, is studying is the ecosystem of scientific research and development (R&D) in the U.S. — and importantly, its sources of funding — which is critical to the U.S. maintaining competitiveness in a global environment. Frontiers in Science and Innovation Policy (FSIP), launched in 2022 within CCGT, examines the workings of the American R&D ecosystem and its consequences for universities and private, nonprofit research institutes for vital public issues. 

“We’ve been able to pinpoint just how dramatically large the impact of philanthropy is on the universities and the independent research laboratories in the U.S., and it turns out that the largest share of money spent on fundamental discovery — the really innovative stuff — is in the university and independent research laboratory system,” Cowhey said. “It’s not that the feds don’t spend money on really ambitious stuff. It’s not that corporations don’t do cool things. But the biggest bet we make as a society on fundamental discovery is in the universities and independent laboratories.” 

A series of papers on the topic is forthcoming, Cowhey added. 

Despite all of his continued projects both within GPS and outside of it, Cowhey has still found time within his retirement to take vacations — with an academic twist, of course. 

“Travel is always high on the agenda, and I like to combine that with my intellectual interests — that has perhaps been my favorite form of hobby activity besides reading,” Cowhey said. “My next trip will be to Greece, where I’ll be giving a lecture on how the ancient Greek philosophers influence the rebirth of science in medieval Europe. Then I’ll be going down to Chile in the fall to give lectures on global trade and investment trends, and then I’ll take 10 days to go wandering around that part of South America.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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