Monday, September 13, 2010

SuperSize me...NOT! And kudo's (yes!) to Francis Collins

We here at Penn State are like those at other (modestly self-designated) Research One universities.  We're following McDonalds and Supersizing.  We're building buildings like our (modestly named) Millennium research lab, to house the future largesse that will come from tarting up ever more unwary (or insufficiently modest) professors for ever more of their time to be on the streets hustling....hustling grants for life-science research, that is.  The Editor of Science, Bruce Alberts, has written a most appropriate comment about this.   As he says,
Policies that offer incentives for individuals and institutions can unintentionally induce harmful behaviors. One such perverse incentive encourages U.S. universities, medical centers, and other research institutions to expand their research capacities indefinitely through funds derived from National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grants. A reliance on the NIH to pay not only the salaries of scientists but also the overhead (or indirect) costs of building construction and maintenance has become a way of life at many U.S. research institutions, with potential painful consequences. The current trajectory is unsustainable, threatening to produce a glut of laboratory facilities reminiscent of the real estate bust of 2008 and, worse, a host of exhausted scientists with no means of support.
The British Science Minister, David Willits, echoes much the same sentiment (and he a Tory!). 

Science Minister David Willetts has said the research-teaching balance has "gone wrong" in universities, after defending cuts to science research.
Addressing vice chancellors, he said he was shocked by how little teaching was valued in lecturers' promotions.
Universities that relegated the importance of teaching risked "losing sight" of their mission, he said.
We feel  (modestly) that they're simply copy-catting our earlier post on the universities as outsource odd-job hustlers.

We note also that Francis Collins, who we feel free to criticize when he earns it, has made similar statements and also recognizes the problem.  As Alberts writes, "NIH Director Francis Collins has boldly stated that "it is time for NIH to develop better models to guide decisions about the optimum size and nature of the U.S. workforce for biomedical research." 

He may be our national Sugar Daddy, but there's only so much sugar in his bowl.  He's doing the right thing by cautioning that endless growth cannot go on.  Willits points out that teaching (what's that?  we've forgotten) should have at least some tiny role in universities, even if it doesn't generate fancy buildings and funds to travel globally to talk about our stunningly important research.

Well, we doubt Francis or these other authors are actually Mermaid's Tale viewers.  Still, the point is that even in good economic times unconstrained growth can't be sustained.  And we're not in good times and there's no prospect of that the main source of sugar, NIH, will keep pace.  With the prospect of a grant actually being funded now around 10% much of the time, that's a lot of street-walking that has to be done to turn enough tricks to make a living.

Universities apparently, and perhaps mindlessly for organizations supposedly housing intelligent people, think they can continue to milk (or bleed) the system for their spending money, by turning their faculty into grant serfs funded by outsourced research grants and contracts.

It has to come crashing down if it's not let down gently.  We used an image of rusting hulks of former research buildings in an earlier post, and Alberts and Willits invoke some similar thoughts.  The system is in deeper than this even, as there is the surrounding growth of tech-gear and journal-publishing industries who depend on the research mill's products.  

Willits wants U research to be restricted to things with economic impact--an old Reagan saw that is just the opposite of what should be the case: business should take care of business and stop outsourcing.  Universities should do basic research and teaching to prepare students to go into business and do the research the business needs.  Of course 'basic' research should be relevant--no support for searching for all 1000 genes that affect the length of your earlobe.

Universities are on a bubble and they don't want to face it.  National student loan debt is higher than mortgage debt.  There will be defaults and parents and students will stop going in the hole only to be processed like sardines by part-time instructors.  As with most bubbles, each one on the surface hopes or pretends s/he'll out-smart the system.  But bubbles burst.  We need some slow, orderly, humane, sensible deflation of the bubble.

But until the faculty force change from below, nothing will change without the 'pop!' of personal tragedy among the army of the hopeful (the faculty).  Administrators, far too numerous and high on the drug of large amounts of money they didn't earn and brand-new research buildings, can't do it or at least won't.  All are afraid to be first to DownSize rather than SuperSize, even if high quality people would flock to their institutions for a breath of fresh careers.  Will change will have to come from hemorrhage, controlled trephanation, or, shall we say, from disorderly agitation from the street.


occamseraser said...

Tilt at windmills much?

Med schools are addicted to NIH $, and strategic plans are formulated around schemes to suck more and more from the deflating federal teat. Huge parasitic research administrations depend on the success of biomed researchers (in their individual quests for promotion and tenure) to feed their bloated bureaucracies. The crash will not be pretty.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree. But over the past 30 years, we acquiesced, step by step, selfishly and shortsightedly, as the system grew (I've seen that with my own eyes).

There is no 'solution' other than a pop or a fizzle of the bubble. Hopefully, a fizzle.

As to windmills, well, Don Quixote knew he was nuts but he did it anyway. I have a great quote by the old journalist I.F. Stone that says you have to fight battles like this even tho' you know you're going to lose. Somebody once put it to me this way: At the end of your career, you should ask yourself "what did you do with your tenure?" (that is, the freedom it affords). I try to do what I think is best, whether or not that is going against the grain. What's the point otherwise?