Thursday, September 2, 2010

The devil's workshop: outsourcing science to universities

In the old days universities were where students were acculturated to be the proper leaders in society.  True, it was the privileged who were taught which finger to crook when tea was drunk, how to quote Homer or Shakespeare at the appropriate moment, and how to lead a church service or ship into battle.
The rest of us merely had to be satisfied tending our plows.  There was some research done, certainly, but it wasn't like it is now.  But manly a professor was an honored individual, a source of knowledge, who took seriously the role of preparing the next generation.

Also once upon a time, if you were a company who needed some research done to improve your product, you turned to your research staff in Lab Building A, and presented them with the problem.  If you were lucky, and/or they were good, you made yourself a better mousetrap.

But there was a problem.  Once  the mousetraps were selling well, you still had the lab, its buildings and heating system, and the scientists (and their white coats and high salaries) to pay for.  But you didn't need them until mousetrap sales were down and you had to develop a new product.

And then someone had a brilliant idea!  What if we could contract out our research needs, job by job?  Then, we get the research we need, but somebody else is left holding the infrastructure bag.  They may have to look for more work, but it ain't our problem!

The military figured that out a while back, and so KP and other duties no longer fell to misbehaving buck privates, so to speak, but to civilian painters, peelers, and healers.  And in the research case, we had NIH and NSF and universities with professors eager for grants, to do society's out-sourced research.  Over the past 50 years, since we were scared to death by Sputnik and the possibility that 'they' (the bad guys) might be gaining on us, government and industry alike have invested heavily in out-sourced research.  And it's led to a huge outsource industry, eager for the contracts.  That industry is called 'universities.'  It is us.

We have so institutionalized the need for these out-source contracts that universities who have to pay their staff will do almost anything for them and we have become professionalized at thinking up important projects to do.  Some, of course, really are important.  But when you have a huge industry of people whose livelihood depends on getting these contracts, naturally they will have to find things to do, to justify their jobs, bring in the cash, and seem important in the process.

The growth of universities from teaching institutions to institutions that tolerate students if they have to, has occurred largely in this way.  We now hold the infrastructure that has to be fed by the continual inflow of funds (grants and contracts) and has to justify this by a continued out-sluicing of 'results.'  Otherwise, idle hands will be the devil's workshop and we might get into mischief, or lose our jobs.  Or the idea that we could now and then actually teach a class--a real waste of our precious talents--might occur.

And guess what?  To keep our sales reps (that is, professors) on the job more intensely to bring in these jobs, we've now started outsourcing our jobs.  We hire instructors to do the teaching so we don't have to, but yet the tuition-paying customers will still come buying our particular mousetraps.  Unlike us, they don't produce the burdensome cost of maintenance, because they haven't got job security (unless they entertain our customers and keep the student-trade moving).  And even they're outsourcing some of what they do by posting courses on online course sites.  And government is outsourcing even its administrative jobs to beltway bandit companies.

Without demeaning the segment of research that really is of some use, and again there certainly is a lot of it, this hunger for out-sourced jobs (we call it "grants and contracts") is a major reason why there are so many science journals, and so much fluff being published and breathlessly reported by another industry hungry for jobs: science popular media and journalism.  We can't put the assembly line of our activities to rest til we really have something useful to do, any more than a company can stop selling mousetraps til they have a better idea. 

This represents an interesting situation in which the burden of research has been off-loaded to create another dependent class, the professoriate and our administrators.  This chain of outsourcing and dropping of responsibility can't last forever.  Some day, it will crash, and there will be rusting hulks of buildings that once housed the famous professors who generated hundreds of profound papers each, in a steady stream....that mainly nobody read other than the authors' relatives, pets, and perhaps a journalist hungry for something to write breathlessly about 24/7--because after all, they're an industry, too.

Of course, as part of the system ourselves, we must confess that this steady stream of inane 'research' findings has all been very good indeed for the blogging industry.....


occamseraser said...

The truth hurts :)

It's even worse, in my experience, if one is part of a medical center but does basic research unrelated to the biomed-bigPharm-clinical trials industry. And junior clinical faculty are interchangeable, disposable drones for the hospital CEO queen bee that must be fed with clinical income. And it now takes ~0.75 to 1 million bucks just to set up a new junior basic scientist, and their clock starts ticking for "productivity" (AKA RO1s) before the paint is dry.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, yes. And if you've been around as long as I have, you've seen it build from a sane system with research money to promote good ideas, to a factory assembly line.

But we've made it happen, and we're not collectively resisting. In the 70s and even earlier (which really _was_ before my time!) there was plenty of funding and funding allowed salaries to rise (since overhead was proportional to grant totals, universities loved higher salaries....that they didn't even have to pay since the grant did!). That led universities, esp. professional schools like med schools, to hire even more faculty because they could be on soft-money (get their salaries from grants).

As this monster grew progressively, slowly with perhaps largely imperceptible (Darwinian) gradualism, we acquiesced into our current system.

The most sobering thought, besides the proliferation of journals, and costly often mindless research, is that if you look at citations you really do see how little impact most of what most of us do really has.

The only solution I can think of would be some gradual collective action to phase out soft-money faculty salaries, reduce faculty size and make it related to major research and teaching, to have limits on funding amounts or project duration in given labs, and not tie overhead amounts to individual grants but to some better measure of real impact, or just allot each 'research university' with some working overhead funds.

Even that would quickly be schemed and scammed by the organizations, of course, to make sure they kept what they're getting now. Whether it could liberate faculty and reduce the inanity of so much of our research, who can know?