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It's Not The Money, Stupid!

by Allen J. Bard
October 11, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 41

This guest editorial is by Allen J. Bard, a chemistry professor and director of the Center for Electrochemistry at the University of Texas, Austin.

The culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity, and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money (often now called “resources”) raised. A number of factors have played a role in this change: the “business model” for universities, an increased willingness to accept greed as a virtue in our society and as a measure of success, and a desire for an easy “objective” measure of something that is otherwise difficult to quantify.

As a result, we have reached the point where faculty members are judged more by the amount of research funds they have raised, primarily from government agencies, than by the accomplishments that flow from the funding. Obtaining high levels of funding is considered not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, and I’ve been party to tenure discussions that have centered on this (for example, on the need for “scoring two major grants”) rather than on the quality of work.

It is possible to rationalize this attitude by saying that funds raised are a measure of how one is evaluated by one’s peers. The fact is, however, that the final decision to fund really comes from project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the month. It is also true that the best grant-swingers are those who are willing shamelessly to hype their research and their field—truth and modesty be damned.

The result of this cultural shift, as we have heard over and over from colleagues, is that one spends 70% of one’s working time writing proposals and seeking funding. Thus, not only do we operate under a model where highly trained scientists are almost immediately removed from direct hands-on research upon arriving at a faculty position, but now are also largely removed even from close research supervision of students.

As the system develops, the probability of being funded on any given project gets smaller and smaller, so one must keep writing and sending in proposals that have to be processed and evaluated by a growing number of project officers, but, alas, by a fixed number of peers. The agencies, forever seeking more funding from the government, also keep inventing an alphabet soup of new programs. These come with an increasing bureaucratic burden of accepting the funds, thus guaranteeing an ever-increasing time commitment by investigators.

A more recent and potentially even more damaging trend is a growing expectation by universities that faculty should help fund operations not only through overhead from research grants, but also through the generation of intellectual property (IP). Faculty is heavily encouraged to generate patents and find partners to license them, or, even better, to nucleate new start-up companies. To advance this agenda, universities are hiring highly paid administrators—with visions of Warfarin and Gatorade dancing in their heads—to head technology commercialization efforts. These are intended not only to generate additional funds for the university, but also to demonstrate to the public the “economic value” of the university to society. These kinds of activities have even been described as “critical to the mission of a university.” While such considerations have not yet become a major influence on promotion and tenure decisions, one has reason to fear for the future.

No wonder we have problems with attracting good young people to careers in academic science despite large outreach efforts. If working closely with students and doing long-term fundamental research is not the goal and money is the important thing, there are more lucrative professions than academic ones for them to pursue. I also fear that the perceived importance of money in science has led to a public backlash on issues like climate change and chemical toxicity, with the feeling that scientists are pushing these areas to get funding and not necessarily because they believe all that they report. This indeed is tragic.

Allen J. Bard


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