Friday, April 18, 2014

Another way to look at the university research budget sand castle problem

Yesterday we noted that a clear awareness of a crunch-time for university based science and graduate training is 'in the air'.  This is the result of an oversupply of doctoral graduates and a shrinking level of research funding.  It's leaving young people and even some older ones high and dry.  It's associated also with the loss of societal support for higher education as a general societal gain--legislators are backing away from providing funds to state universities.  One casualty is the loss of tenure-track jobs, being replaced by instructional serfdom.

These things reflect a more general turn towards individualism in our society--indeed, if you want to go to college, well, pay for it yourself!  But it's also a reflection of the self-serving college and university 'bubble' by which we have advertised 'education' and our research findings so heavily, to create societal demand, but without matching substance beneath it.

So many articles and blog posts and so on are being written to hand-wring about this.  We mentioned the Albert et al. PNAS commentary yesterday, written by experienced, senior people in science, but there have been many others.  We write in sympathy with the views expressed, and have, as have the authors of these and many other commentaries on this crisis, tried to suggest ways to get through trying times.

However, there is another very different way to look at this.

Social change must occur on its own terms
We, and authors of bemoaning commentaries that make recommendations for how to face these problems, are generally senior.  What we naturally tend to think of, and to suggest, amounts to ways to return to how things were done in the past--to how it was when we were young, the system we came up in, liked, got used to and which we would suggest make a come-back.  We did well during our decades and so tend to think we know what's right.  We naturally tend to propose changes meant to maintain the status quo.

But maybe that's wrong. Maybe we should not be listened to.  Maybe it's natural and right that we be put out to pasture.  We had what we view as halcyon days and they do seem definitely to have been gentler and easier than what is faced today.  But perhaps the solutions now will have to be different.

Perhaps lifetime tenure is obsolete.  Perhaps dependence on the grant system can't be reinstated, and major shifts in jobs will have to occur, and shouldn't be mourned.  Perhaps academic life will become less desirable, or will come to be something very different from what we elders knew and liked.  This is already happening, of course, not so much by design but because universities as businesses make decisions based on bottom-line considerations more than they used to, rather than what's best for scholarship or research or educational interests.  At least as we elders see those.

Perhaps, even, intensified competition is just the way it'll have to be.  Perhaps the capitalistic view that this is the hard-knocks way for society to thrive, trimming fat, intensifying effort and so on will become the norm.  Perhaps universities will have to shrink, professors losing jobs that don't really matter in the online world.  Perhaps the existence of excess labor pools--instructors who can't get tenure-track jobs and instead work by the hour when and where they can get jobs--is just going to be the way of the world because it is more economically 'efficient' (for society as a whole).  Perhaps this is a return not to the way it was for current elders, but much farther back, to the itinerant scholar days, ones who sing for their supper as individuals.  That's how it was in much of Classic times and the Middle Ages, after all.

In fact, it will just happen, however it happens.  Powers that be will struggle to keep things as they are and newcomers will struggle to change them, all in ways no one can really predict.  But perhaps in one way or another, we are already seeing a gradual de facto return to some forms of social and intellectual elitism, along with income inequity, is the path of the future even if we elders don't like that.  Perhaps our ideas about 'democracy' are just naive.

Maybe we should just not be the ones invited to write editorials about this 'crisis': maybe it's a crisis only in the mirror on the past.

Perhaps instead, young people will somehow restructure things in a way we elders can't or don't envision, and hence could never recommend.  Maybe they and only they should be writing about this---or, more realistically, maybe this needs to be worked out, by them, through the social media rather than the stodgy outlets we elders tend to use.

Given the number of stressors on the system, however, much of the change and the resolution is likely to be unplanned and will just in some meandering or chaotic way be where universities find themselves when the dust settles.  

Whatever replaces our type of world will become the new status quo, the one the new elders mourn the passing of fifty years from now, as our generation fades into the sunset of the world we have known.


Pat Schloss said...

I agree we should ask the young people, not the old farts who want to protect themselves; however, my sense is that the generally accepted solution will be to give us more money. The thing I found remarkable about the PNAS article was that they weren't complaining about funding levels or amount of financial support to NIH and NSF. So here's a thought - could it be that the run up in the 90's and ARRA created a bubble that has been slowly deflating over the last 10 years? Basically, aren't we really just in the process of a correction? It's really going to hurt a lot of people's lives, but hopefully things will restart once the correction is over.

Ken Weiss said...

Well, the problem is the 'more', the only word in American English. Until we generally get used to the idea of less instead of more, and thought instead of technology, we'll just keep intensifying the competition

We need (I think) to re-think the nature and uses of 'Big Data' science. It has its terrific uses, but becomes a fetish or something and certainly diminishes the pressure to think and focus.

I agree it's a kind of natural 'correction', in budget terms, but in human terms it's less clear that those who have are recognizing the problem for those who haven't (but largely who we created for our own self-interested purposes).

If we had a better sense of proportion, a control to temper empire-building, and so on, then distributing more funds, modestly, to more people might be a good kind of science ecosystem promotion.

But that isn't how we behave these days, when individual acquisitiveness is our ideology

Manoj Samanta said...

It is much more than 'a correction'. What you are seeing is secular decline of USA and the West.

The only way to avoid or short-curcuit the process is bankruptcy at all levels. However, that is the solution least acceptable by the powerful class.

Ken Weiss said...

Such trends are slow usually and unpredictable, I think. But all imperial powers do fade. At the same time, even the British still are far more influential than the size of the isles. With population and ecological pressure, maybe the intensity of lots of activities, including science, will fade or change to other activities.

We have big problems, such as climate and agriculture, that could trigger cataclysmic conflict or disruption, but that I think nobody can predict. Today it's reported that a major fraction of China's land is toxic. Some such things will perhaps be the dominos whose falling triggers who knows what.

We know there are issues, but it historically is not obvious (to say the least) that we will move out of a comfort zone and do something about them. We (well, younger people) will just have to see what happens.

Eric Kansa said...

A similar point made here:

Just to note: the erosion of democracy and the public good is not inevitable. I think the Occupy Movement, from from being a failure, was wonderfully successful at focusing attention in inequality issues. "Austerity" economics now has very little intellectual legitimacy, and that matters.

I doubt it means we'll see universities reconstituted to their 1960's and 1970's state, but we probably will a host of other (smaller, cheaper) institutional forms that may be better suited to serve the public interest in research and education. But endless serfdom is not necessarily our inevitable course.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for these comments. I think we can't predict, but a swing back towards a civilized pace of life and more equity with less elite privilege seems a long way away unless some dire trauma strikes our society.

I was around during the protest era of the '70s and I see little resemblance, even with Occupy. The anger and even militant feelings are barely around, even on campuses, even those known for a progressive outlook.

Intellectual legitimacy (or its antithesis) has to have some societal oomph behind it, and I don't see it or really sense it at present. But who knows, what I take to be your optimism may be correct.