2.7.18

TURNING PROFESSORS INTO RESEARCH ENTREPRENEURS?

Inside Higher Ed guest columnist Scott O. Lilienfeld questions the latest incarnation of grant culture at the research universities.
In a growing number of academic institutions, tenure, promotion and access to graduate student lines and laboratory space have become difficult or impossible without grants, regardless of one’s levels of scholarly productivity and influence. In response to those developments, critics have raised pointed concerns regarding the culture’s: a) corrosive impact on scholarly creativity, b) diversion of research endeavors toward trendy topics and techniques, and c) inadvertent incentivizing of questionable research practices.
Nothing really new here: the grant-getting business has long been fraught.
Universities have encouraged their faculty to seek external funding for their research. Sometimes that funding includes an administrative reassignment referred to in popular parlance as "release time," which translates into more time for research and fewer courses to teach.

There is a line, somewhere, between externally funded pure research and externally funded advocacy. (In the Superintendent's view, the two National Endowments cross that line as a matter of nature, but that's for another day.) A professor at California-Davis is discovering that the location of the line depends on the observer's perspective. He has been accused of treason, according to Tyler at Marginal Revolution. Did he take money from the Republican National Committee? Nope. (OK, I'm being acerbic, but that's a feature here.) Was it Hamas money? Nope. Was it a foreign government? Yep. In this case, it's Brazil's government. (Does that country currently have a socialist government? Curious the effect politics has on commercial policies.)

What did this professor investigate that was so loathsome? Cotton subsidies.
At the time I wrote this, Northern Illinois was requiring evidence of effort to seek funding, although failure to obtain funding was not fatal to a tenure case.  Perhaps the even more straitened circumstances of today make successful grant-getting a precondition of tenure.

Whether the requirement is a bright line, or not, Professor Lilienfeld suggests it's not a good idea.
First, in the social sciences and some other disciplines, many investigators can and do conduct high-quality research without grants. For example, numerous influential scholars in cognitive, social and personality psychology carry out their primary work with little or no money, often drawing on unpaid volunteers from human participant pools or community members who are compensated with modest fees. Requiring these investigators and other faculty members who can readily perform their research without grants to apply for external funding -- a demand that has become increasingly routine at many universities -- comes with a major ethical price tag. This practice leads many professors to consume sizable sums of taxpayer money when it is unnecessary, as well as to spuriously inflate their research costs. It also diverts money from investigators who cannot sustain their research programs without funding, often forcing them to lay off personnel and, in some cases, shutter their laboratories entirely.
If you're doing theoretical economics, a notepad and some sharp pencils (or perhaps a math program such as Waterloo Maple) and away you go. Yes, it's possible to start an idea, dress it up as a research proposal, and run it through Sponsored Projects and all the rest, and the time cost might not be all that great, but it's still time writing up the proposal rather than completing the work.
Second, some universities expect faculty members to fund the costs of graduate students -- stipends and fellowships, tuition, and sometimes health insurance and other fees -- on federal grants. Yet for the same amount or less money, these professors could hire qualified postbaccalaureate students who could put in far more hours, as they are unencumbered with burdensome doctoral training requirements. As one example, familiar to me as a faculty member at a clinical psychology doctoral program, our graduate students rarely have more than 15 hours per week to devote to research between classes, teaching and clinical training responsibilities; in contrast, a post-B.A. assistant can put in 40 hours every week. Consequently, university administrators are handing taxpayers, who foot the bill for federal grants, a raw deal for their money.
Yes, and the graduate students so trained on the taxpayer dime learn the arts of grantsmanship, and, should they be fortunate enough to land a tenure-line job, they can then write grants and recruit and develop the next generation of Amway representatives researchers.  Whether the work so funded is better than the work professors develop on their own initiative remains to be seen.
Third, the grant-mandatory culture collides with two crucial missions of academe: the free pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination via teaching. With regard to the first mission, many professors report that because of their institution’s expectations for acquiring funding, combined with the circumscribed priorities of granting agencies, they feel pressured to devote much of their time to research questions that they find uninteresting or unimportant.

And when it comes to the second mission, a recent survey of faculty members in astronomy and psychology revealed that the average grant proposal consumes 116 hours of principal investigator time. When professors must devote much of their time to repeatedly preparing and submitting grants, along with administering grants they have received, something has to give. That something is typically teaching, along with mentoring and advising. Indeed, in many science departments, education takes a back seat to the grant chase. In response to the grant-mandatory culture, many of them delegate undergraduate teaching and undergraduate research mentoring to graduate students or underpaid adjunct faculty members.

We would expect many administrators to respond to these criticisms with a familiar refrain. Yes, one can hear them saying, in an ideal world it would be wonderful to run a research-intensive university without substantial external funding, but we do not live in such a world. Many academic institutions, especially public universities, are strapped for cash, and they need faculty members to help bring in money.
What they spend the money they do have on is instructive (hint: diversity bureaucracies, climbing walls, upgraded sports facilities.)  Perhaps, as Professor Lilienfeld suggests, it is time for deans, provosts, and the like to view their work as a temporary departure from the classroom and the laboratory, rather than as a permanent respite therefrom.
In addition, deans and other administrators should strive to more frequently retain their departmental affiliations, whenever possible dedicating no more than half of their work time to administration. Doing so would enable them to observe and perhaps even experience the impact of the grant-mandatory culture on the everyday lives of faculty members and students. Admittedly, this goal may not be feasible for all administrators, but for those who are still active scholars, it might be a realistic aspiration.
There's also the possibility of professors going Galt. If you're going to be a research entrepreneur, maybe that Mr Chips cloak isn't so important.  This might have been my parting shot before I cleaned out my office.
Thus, faculty in the laboratory sciences and medicine have the stresses of being entrepreneurs, in the presence of government funding that is presumably infected with the same bending-the-cost-curve mentality that is wrecking physician morale. Alternatively, there are sources of corporate funding for such research, but that may be Big Business attempting to put an objective face forward by having Mr Chips rather than Dr Frankenstein designing the drugs. That business model, however, brings in conflicts of commercial interest on top of the tournament to be doing frontier research because everybody else is, and University Diaries has never lacked for work documenting those conflicts.

Turn the sponsored projects into a private business and then the professor is now an entrepreneur meeting payroll and covering capital costs, not generating indirect cost recovery for the rent-seekers to dissipate. But I antagonized one former dean by pointing out that doing consulting on my own time during the summer was not subject to any of the constraints that would apply to ordinary grants. Not that he had a particularly convincing rejoinder.

That research entrepreneurship, which allows the professor to keep his Mr Chips image and builds the university's research prestige, collides with access-assessment-remediation-retention.
The faculty are stewards of the university, and that's dawning on Professor Lilienfeld.
For far too long, professors at research-intensive institutions, myself included, have neglected to insist that administrators own up to the deeply troubling ethical implications of their grant policies. It is now up to us to urge administrators to engage in long-overdue conversations and collaborative problem solving with their faculty colleagues to address these issues.
We'll know he's serious when his language is a touch less conciliatory.

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