Thursday, February 7, 2013

To cut, or how to cut, that is the question

We have criticized the current science funding and approach many times and in many ways here on MT.  Essentially, there is waste, relentless pressure to churn out safe incremental results, and pressure to rely on Big Science for a variety of reasons, some of which have as much to do with careerism as the science itself. The science establishment has been overpopulated in a Malthusian way, even knowingly, and we have noted how and why this understandably leads to various forms of shading of the evidence, including outright fraud.

These are facts that only the most Pollyannish people in science, or perhaps Francis Collins politicking in defense of NIH's budget, would deny.

We have said to the contrary, that grant budgets should be cut substantially.  The objective would be to force investigators to work on more cogent problems, more likely to return useful practical or theoretical results to the society that funds the work, and do that at more reasonable cost.  But we would encourage longer-term funding, and caps on how much any one investigator can have, to spread the wealth.  We know that this, like any such distribution policy, would generate some waste and inefficiency, but it could hardly be more than it is currently, and might increase the chance of real innovative discovery.  Faculty for whom research is part of their job, should be given modest research budgets without having to pass 'peer' review, but accountable instead by periodic demonstration of capable thoughtful work.  Projects, especially big ones, ought to have clear and definitive time limits.  Universities should be weaned off their addiction to grant overhead, and career-building needs to be returned to evaluations based more on originality, depth, and impact than on lobbied, gamed production mills.

But how can it be good to cut funding when it's already so tight?
It has been objected that the probability of funding is already very low--some institutes at the National Institutes of Health are said to be funding only 8% of grant applications--so that cutting could hardly have salubrious effects!  How can we rectify a belief that the system of science is too bloated with the fact that reduced budgets would make it even harder to be funded?

This is a fair question, and the answer isn't simple, but let's try to explain our view, at least.  First, funding is tight perhaps, but the 8% figure doesn't represent the whole story.

A large amount of research support by NIH at least, and probably NSF as well, goes to internally driven programs or projects, perhaps like funding DNA sequencing centers, or to semi-competitive contract bids, or to RFP's.  RFPs are NIH's requests for proposals to address some particular area that they have been convinced need attention; RFP's are drafted with external consultants and in our experience the funding mainly goes more or less predictably to insiders, already established in the field, partly because they're in effect designed or aimed that way, which leaves most proposals coming opportunistically out of the blue and truly far off the fundability mark.

In addition, the low per-proposal rate, whether it's 8% or in fact higher, just leads investigators to submit reams of proposals every year, so that while most proposals may not be funded, most investigators do get some funding.  And if you look at what's funded, you wonder how that could happen if funds were really so tight that only really good science would make the mark.

This same overheated system means less time investigators spend doing any actual work because they're writing so many grant applications, and that leads investigators to routinely overstate what they have done, and to be very safe in proposing what they want to do in the future.  It generates large sets of administrators to handle the processing, etc.  And, of course, to the shading of truth in various ways.  You can't expect otherwise.

Further, there is a very conscious and intentional drive to propose bigger and longer studies on various grounds, some legitimate but many trumped up as rationales, so investigators can manage big groups for long time periods.  Bigger means safer and more status and influence on campus.  You can't fault people for thinking grandly, or seeking more security.  A concentration of funds in Big Science is not good for science overall if it leads to quickly diminishing returns but too-big-to-terminate projects, and this we think is quite common, indeed almost the rule.  The move to 'omics' scale work is very deliberately done and in part for these fiscal and careerist rather than scientific reasons.

Of course, the same, predictably, also drives universities to want more overhead income--universities get a hefty percentage of the budget of just about every grant their faculty members receive, money over and above the grant budget, that goes straight from the funding agency to the university--so there are all sorts of pressures on the system itself to go Big.  There is no reason universities shouldn't keep wanting to expand: in the way we view the world in the business-modeled US and EU, size, growth, and competition are everything.  Investigators who aren't funded can, well, survive however they can survive.  Or not.  Pressures are naturally for 'faculty' to teach less if at all, and do less actual work so they can spend their time and effort on grant-writing.  So naturally we tend to hype every little factoid to the media and publish a relentless stream of (usually never-cited) papers.  Anyone who denies the pervasiveness of this is being disingenuous.

Considering all these factors, however tight funding is it's in part because the system is still bloated without constraints to make people do more focused, accountable, work.  Or to become more efficient.  Or more honest, if it comes to that.

If budgets were cut to the point that NIH and perhaps also NSF and others, had really to evaluate what is most necessary, focused, and likely to yield returns, and to stop things that aren't, and to curb university overhead-greed and administrative overload, and to restrain NIH's and NSF"s own big publicity hype machines, and so on, we could perhaps--perhaps--make things more scientifically efficient.

If we slowed down and scaled back, and made funding more predictable and longer-term, but per capita smaller, and changed to a way of thinking that led to fewer but better-trained graduate students, fewer post-docs, smaller faculty and research staff, smaller and less bloated operations overall, then science might be advanced and perhaps even at a lower cost.  And funding, though more modest perhaps, would be easier to get.

But without real tightening, it is in nobody's interests--certainly not those who accept the Darwinian worldview that life is all about relentless competition and winner-take-all rewards--to change the way they do business.  As it is now, competing more frenetically is the strategy that is perceived to have the best chances of success.

But what about the jobs at stake?
Any cuts will involve threats to jobs and hence draw resistance of whatever sort universities and investigators and other lobbyists can muster.  But there are honorable ways to cut.  Phased budgetary cut-backs could give universities time to adjust.  They could downsize by not replacing personnel who leave or retire, for example.  Phased change that is clearly signaled with enough time to adapt is a proper and feasible way to do things.

A return to more measured expectations and modest but focused work, done in a humanely phased way, could rectify some of the issues and improve the yield of knowledge and 'translatable' results to the public. 


JKW said...

Being on the job market and struggling to make my monthly student loan payments, I'm not at liberty to make full comment on this issue. My cohort's grievances are disenfranchised.

I will simply express my opposition to the notion that we need to somehow limit the number of individuals engaged in the enterprise in order to make it function well and my opposition to the idea that downsizing personnel or not replacing those who leave/retire will allow for a more "humane" transition to a new and improved system. That approach has been academia's M.O. for years- even with grant funding still pouring into major research institutions. IMHO the time for a gradual, phased change is long gone.

I will also just point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 23-1, 25-1, and 26. How many talented and hard-working (not just those so easily dismissed as mere degree holders) need to go on SNAP benefits before change actually is prioritized and the severity of the problem is acknowledged? How many scholars need to exit the US, science, or academia altogether before those with power to make changes acknowledge the ill effects of such a brain drain on society? And how long will it take before we, the un- & under-employed academics, start voting our conscience and actively working to dismantle "the system" in its entirety?

Ken Weiss said...

I'm not sure what you are suggesting as a solution. But if there are too many contenders already in the system, and those who are lucky enough to be in the system are pressured for their own careerist reasons to train many more people, then even without budget constraints we have an exponentially growing system that will have to run up against a wall some time.

Our suggestion, and it was a thought or two, to pare back gradually in a system that is unsustainably large given the fiscal realities.

What is the alternative to a deliberately and clearly phased system where everybody knows basically what's happening? I don't know what dismantling 'the system' in its entirety would mean?

If you are saying that grass roots objections by junior people is needed then all I would say is that major social change that threatens the establishment more than symbolically usually requires internal, grass roots 'uprisings' or else some sort of externally driven catastrophe like a major war or something.

Our suggestion could be implemented without downsizing in personnel if (1) we really and seriously purged waste--but that would threaten many jobs, since much of the waste is in the form of equipment, staff, administrators, and the like, or (2) spread the wealth around in smaller, but more stable, packets, with a form of accountability other than the current 'peer' review system--but we suggested that as one idea in our message.

But if you have other suggestions for how to do this, what are they?

Anne Buchanan said...

The problem in academic science today is obvious -- there are more people wanting jobs and funding than there are jobs or funds. But, is it that there is too little money or are there too many people applying for it? Or, is there the appropriate amount of money but it's distributed inequitably? Which of these perspectives you choose defines your solution. Either more money gets dumped into science, or fewer people are trained, or the money gets redistributed.

It's unlikely in today's economy that the powers-that-be will choose the first definition of the problem -- not enough money in the system -- or even if that wanted to, there's no more money to dump in. So that's not likely to be the solution that's going to make a difference to people like you, JKW, who are already trained but not yet employed.

And, even if universities all agreed tomorrow to cut the number of grad students they train in half, or more, there are already too many people in your shoes for the long term fix of openings by attrition to help. This means that it's likely that a lot of you are going to quit looking for jobs in academic science. Or, become low-paid lecturers.

This means that the system will continue to work for people whose careers are already going well, and there will be little pressure to change it. That is, redistribution of resources isn't going to happen, either.

Everyone knows there's a Malthusian problem here, but in fact there's no real pressure to solve it. Who will demand it? The system works too well for too many, universities get their overhead no matter who's bringing it in -- a lot of investigators bringing in a little money (Ken's solution) or an elite few bringing in a lot -- and young people can't afford to stick around and demand change, they have student loans to pay off and have to go find jobs elsewhere.

Yes, I'm pessimistic.

Ken Weiss said...

I'll only chime in on Anne's comment to the extent of saying that low-paid lecturers also means low-security and perhaps itinerant lecturers, which is an increasing fraction of faculty in regular universities.

So that's not a very good solution for the high level of training and investment in the people the system is cranking out.

Short-term, people don't want to dare to retire for financial reasons or because they're ego is being stroked by the system and they can't bear the anonymity of leaving it.

And what about the threat from MOOCs? Universities, even their 'real' (that is, tenured and unfireable or unretireable) faculty feel the threat from online courses. But with thousands of students each, and so on, that doesn't look like a good place for people with years of graduate and post-doctoral experience to find work.

Of course, biological sciences are vastly better than law schools because we at least fund most of our graduate students. Law schools are in real trouble at the moment because an over-supply isn't compensating the graduates for their loan debts.

Again, if you have some sort of solution, you shouldn't be inhibited from saying it. And how are we going to solve the problem of too many people or too little funds or too unevenly distributed?

Unless, as now, we're happy with dog-eat-dog.

Hollis said...

go Ken! a discussion that needs to be had. There's so much waste in my opinion ... how to trim without trimming indiscriminately is the big challenge. I look forward to more news on MT as things progress (hopefully).

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks, Hollis. It has to be done collectively, both to protect jobs in a reasonable way, and not to gut the kind of science by which we actually learning important things about Nature (some of which are useful, others just edifying).

And yet not be a protectionist guild, breaking the system in the process.

Perhaps, in the process, we can reconsider what it means to be a 'professor', why teaching well at a high level (to students who want to learn) is both noble and influential, and that research in its place is precious, but as a status symbol is pretentious.

Some things about the past were not as good as they are today, but some things were more sensible, and measured, and really were better. Those are the ones we should strive to restore.

Ah, well, empty phrases until enough people are concerned enough to take some real action.

Where are those in the trenches, or in the administration, with the initiative, ideas--and courage--to lead the way?

Maybe you??

Ken Weiss said...

There is an op-ed in Friday's (Feb 8) NY Times ( that is related to the job and other relevant issues this exchange. Whatever one thinks about solutions, there are problems to deal with.

Ken Weiss said...

Story in Friday's Penn State student newspaper reporting the glut of college graduates who, often heavily indebted, can't find jobs that pay as they had expected or even that require college. Same as the law school problem. Here, it's in a sense that we simply do not need so many college graduates in our economy.

If college were really about 'education', about being exposed to things (other than drink, drugs, and contraceptives) that would lead to a more edifying, satisfying life and better citizenship, then it could be defended in that way, though its cost would still be a problem.

But while we need all sorts of other occupations to be filled by skilled, knowledgeable, trained people, everyone is told they must go to college.

And of course the professors (as quoted in this story) say "oh, no, come anyway. It's not all that bad!" [Translation: if you don't come here we may lose our jobs].

And a story in yesterday's NY Times about how genes will explain (naturally) why some students thrive but others don't, in the stressful educational environment. The conclusion, even in the unlikely event this is true in any really substantial extent, might be that this could sort out who should not pursue that kind of education, but should go in other directions.

But urbanite parents are most likely to use the information to genotype their kids and put them on lifetime meds so they can still aim to be neurosurgeons.

These are other manifestations of aspects of our culture that do not optimize human well-being or satisfaction, and are satisfied with misleading promises.