As the representative of one of the 27 US and Canadian dental schools attending the Ann Arbor Deans Forum held at the University of Michigan in May, I keep asking myself the same questions, "Would I want to go to a physician who had been educated in a university setting that is not dedicated to generating and disseminating new knowledge? For that matter, would I want Congress or state governments to provide financial support for medical schools that do not have a strong research orientation?"
Personally, I would answer in the negative. So why should the answer be any different if we substitute dental schools for medical schools?
Yet, over the next decade or two, we can expect to see the opening of approximately 20 new dental schools that, for the most part, will be affiliated with universities where research is not a primary focus. Moreover, a disturbing trend has developed in recent years of proportionally less, rather than more, federally funded oral health-related research being conducted by the nation's dental schools.
In this context, I think it is important to consider the history of dentistry. For much of the 19th century, dentistry was considered a vocation taught by vocational schools mostly through apprenticeships. It was only through the association of dental schools with research-intensive universities, and the embrace of the research missions of these great universities by dental schools, that dentistry became a learned profession. Accordingly, the way dentistry is appropriately viewed by the public and by other professions is based upon that association. If predictions for the coming decades prove correct, it is probable that dental schools that are associated with research-oriented universities and have the creation and dissemination of new knowledge as core values of their mission will represent a minority of our nation's dental schools.
One can only guess at the outcomes of the above scenario, but it does not take a lot of imagination to prognosticate the diminution of the image of the profession in both the eyes of the public, and possibly even more importantly, in the eyes of elected government officials who help underwrite the budgets of many of our great research-oriented dental schools, as well as fund the basic oral health research conducted in these settings through agencies such as the NIH.
With this threat to the profession comes the question, "Who will be educating our future dental scientists and who will be making future advances in scientific knowledge that gets translated into improved oral health for both our citizens and citizens of the world?" It appears to me that less and less the answer will lie in our dental schools and, similar to other "professions," dentistry will again revert to being considered a vocation, rather than a learned profession.
An important result of the Ann Arbor meeting will, I believe, be the strong statement that dentistry's continued status as a learned profession is contingent upon the creation and dissemination of discoveries by its research-intensive schools. In addition, I expect that there will be a consensus to continue the discussions that began in Ann Arbor, both within the larger dental education community and within the practicing profession. Hopefully, these discussions will lead to a consensus regarding the vital role that scientific discovery within our dental schools plays for the profession-at-large as well as for the education of the nation''s future practitioners and oral health scientists.