Crisis in Academic Funding by Toby N. Carlson. Professor of Meteorology, Emeritus. Penn State University, University Park, PA 16802
In recent articles (Carlson, 2006; Carlson 2008: Carlson 2010; see also Roulston, 2006), I described a growing crisis in academic funding brought about by (1) a shrinking financial support for research in real dollars; (2) an increase in the number of PhDs requesting funding; (3) an increased emphasis placed by academic administrations on the importance of funded proposals, when making decisions for tenure and promotion, and (4) the tendency for agencies such as NASA to require their own scientists to compete for funding with academic faculty. The search for financial support amongst university faculty has led to (1) an explosion in the number of proposals and research papers submitted to funding agencies or to journals, (2) a huge increase in the number of PhDs and post docs required to produce the research for professors who are generally too busy with the fierce competition for funds to have sufficient time for doing their own creative work (research by proxy), and (3) a declining quality of the proposals.
Roebber and Schultz (2011) correctly point out that current strategy favors submitting as many proposals as possible, in the hope that perhaps one in five or one in ten would be approved. However, Roulston (2006) also shows that each proposal engenders a ‘cost function’ which must be paid by stress on the faculty member and its attendant affects on his or her health and quality of life. Stress is also placed on the editors of scientific journals resulting from the increased difficulty in finding reviewers and in the escalating costs and time invested in publishing thicker and thicker journals. Roulston also describes something he calls Nash Equilibrium (after the Nobel prize-winning mathematician. John Nash). In Nash Equilibrium an increase in effort by any one person in writing proposals yields no additional success once all parties invest the same effort in doing so. A vicious cycle is therefore established, yielding decreased benefit to science and society , a decrease in the quality of papers and proposals, and much reduced satisfaction by the individual in doing creative science.
I identify the problem as originating in both the funding agencies and the universities. For the former, it is a tendency to promote ‘top down’ science, in which motivation, if not ideas, is prescribed by contract monitors and politicians (and lawyers), as expressed in the Request For Proposal s (RFP), rather than at the grass roots level by the working scientist. In other words research for hire. For the latter, it is a need to turn research into a mechanism for generating revenue.
I suggest that increased funding is not the answer. Rather, I propose a more creative and possibly cheaper modus of doing scientific research at universities could be achieved by a different approach to academic funding, including a more ‘bottom up’ generation of ideas. Yet, I am not optimistic that academic deans and administrators in funding agencies would be willing to change their behavior, as it is in their interest to maintain the current system, however untenable.
Carlson, T. N., 2006a: Deficiencies in the present funding process in meteorology. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 87, 567-570.
Carlson, T. N., 2008: Current funding practices in academic science stifle creativity. Review of Policy Research, Dupont Summit Issue, 2008, 631-642.
Carlson, T. N., 2010: Science by Proxy. Opinion: Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 17, 2010.
Roebber, P. and D. M. Schultz, 2011: Peer review, program officers and science funding. Plus One, 6, 1-6.
Roulston, M. S., 2006: The scientist’s dilemma. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 87, 571-572.