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Q&A: Why cutting science is good

As stimulus funds run out and other federal programs take priority over science research and development, academic research programs will soon feel the squeeze, says linkurl:Diane Auer Jones,;http://www.washcampus.edu/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=Diane%20Auer%20Jones&category=Staff%20List CEO of the Washington Campus, a non-profit business leadership and education organization, and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the US Department of Education. But the culling of academic

By | May 5, 2010

As stimulus funds run out and other federal programs take priority over science research and development, academic research programs will soon feel the squeeze, says linkurl:Diane Auer Jones,;http://www.washcampus.edu/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=Diane%20Auer%20Jones&category=Staff%20List CEO of the Washington Campus, a non-profit business leadership and education organization, and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the US Department of Education. But the culling of academic research programs isn't necessarily a bad thing, she argues in an opinion piece published this week in linkurl:Nature.;http://www.nature.com/nature/index.html
Diane Auer Jones
The expansion of research programs at colleges over the last ten years stretched research funding too thin, writes Jones, hurting faculty, productivity, and especially undergraduate students. This week, Jones took the time to chat with The Scientist about how fewer research programs could help the U.S. re-focus on undergraduate teaching, and what institutions facing research cutbacks should do. The Scientist: As you describe in your article, science funding steadily increased in the U.S. over the last ten years. What happened as a result? Diane Auer Jones: Three administrations in recent history have increased science funding. That was good! I firmly believe a bright future lies with investment in science. But at same time science funding was increasing, state and local budgets were contributing proportionally fewer dollars for higher education. So you had all these university administrators looking to balance their budgets and hearing the message that the [National Institutes of Health] budget was going from $14 billion to $28 billion. They looked at $14 billion worth of opportunity and said, "Man, I want a piece of that." So there was this tremendous investment on university campuses to build facilities to attract good researchers and make that institution more competitive, a way to bring home the bacon. You end up getting a whole new generation of graduate students and PhDs who then wanted to fund their own research careers, and we ended up with more people and more labs competing for research dollars. TS: And what makes that a bad thing? DAJ: Demand significantly outpaced supply, and it became harder to get grants and launch an independent research career. I also think that a number of institutions have lost track of their undergraduate mission, in part because in the scientific community there is a lot of attention paid to hierarchy and rankings, and everyone wants to be at the top of the heap. Data show that at a primarily undergraduate institution, there are a few top-notch students who get to participate in research, but you don't get large participation by most of the undergraduates. And many schools simply layered research responsibilities [on faculty] on top of an already full teaching load. So now you have faculty that are exhausted, still teaching four classes a semester and now running a lab and churning out publications. As assistant secretary, I traveled to all kinds of campuses, and even some campuses located in remote areas with a low-income struggling student population were trying to become research institutions. TS: If research funding dwindles as expected over the next five years, will some schools migrate back to their teaching roots? DAJ: They're going to have to, because the money is not going to be there. The question we have to ask is, do we let everybody compete so that nobody gets enough funding to do anything significant? Or do we focus our research dollars on a smaller number of schools and allow teaching colleges to get back to their mission? Loss of funding is going to happen, so we can either chose to proceed thoughtfully, or just let it happen and clean up the bodies afterward.
Students in a science lab
Image: Wikimedia commons,
University of Pittsburgh at Bradford
There's a real elitism in the field, a prowess attached to research papers. Just maybe, with this contraction of funding, we can go back to a time when we actually recognized and valued the importance of undergraduate education and find a way for people to have productive careers as teachers. TS: What are the options for administrations and faculty looking at tightening budgets? DAJ: For those who are at primarily undergraduate institutions, but still wish to participate in research, one idea is to promote joint appointments at research institutions. For students, the National Science Foundation has a wonderful program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, which funds research universities to host students from non-research institutions for a summer. And certainly some institutions should partner with industry to create opportunities for both students and faculty. But we must also recognize that not every faculty member wants to or should do research, nor can we afford for every student to have a research experience. There's also real value in creating regional research centers where several institutions contribute toward maintaining infrastructure, thus reducing the cost to each. Finally, we should ask the faculty. I have no empirical data, but based on conversations I have with many young faculty, I believe that if you gave them a choice between a research path and a teaching path, and said both would be valued equally, a surprising number would pick the teaching path. I think there are a lot of faculty who would love to have an option that didn't require them to beg for grant money and churn out papers. And those who prefer a research career would probably be delighted to have reduced teaching loads and better access to research funding. This could be a win-win situation for all. D.A. Jones. "Financial pain should focus universities," Nature 465:32-3, 2010.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:NIH funding rates drop;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57295/
[15th April 2010]*linkurl:Are We Training Too Many Scientists?;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/24540/
[1st September 2006]*linkurl:More money, fewer postdocs;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57381/
[26th April 2010]

Comments

Avatar of: Douglas Easton

Douglas Easton

Posts: 32

May 5, 2010

First, let me state my background. I am a Professor at a State College in the SUNY system. I have been at this institution for 32 years and I have seen many changes, good and bad. When I first arrived there were two strong polarized forces acting on new faculty. The existing faculty despised new faculty for aspiring to do research and the administration was insisting on modest research programs that would provide an impact on undergraduate and on our small graduate\nprogram. The incentive for research was tenure. Teaching was deemed important but considered less measurable than research. The "non-researchers" are now all retired and the current faculty have small but personally satisfying research programs involving undergraduates and Masters students. Most of this is done on the "cheap" and suffers because grants are impossible to get for most of our faculty.\n\nThe consequences of the changes have been, for the most part, positive. The conflict at faculty meetings has gone from wrenching to zero. Curricular decisions are based on "modern" science and the faculty attempt to collaborate on projects which will improve the research and teaching environment for everyone.\n\nAs a cell and molecular biologist my research is expensive, I have worked on research supported by my own grants at some times, but much of what I have done has been in collaboration with faculty at a major cancer center.\n\nHave I seen any negatives? Yes, in the first few years I found the work load, starting my own lab and teaching my courses, to be rather heavy but It didn't often result in my not having time for my children. Much of my heavy teaching load was a result of retaliatory scheduling by a non supportive chairman who felt threatened by "researchers." \n\nDid research have a negative effect on my teaching? That is hard to measure. I am sure that there were more than a few times that I could have spent more time preparing a lecture or inventing new approaches to teaching. I think that I was certainly an adequate teacher but I don't think that I had the unteachable and intangible characteristics that make a truly great teacher. \n\nThere is one thing that I do know and that is, I could never have kept the content of my courses up to date over thirty years without doing any science. I spent four years as an undergraduate, six years as a graduate student and five years as a Postdoc to become a scientist. I was not about to easily give up on doing science after making such an investment and I think that I payed back the NIH and the NSF who supported much of my education by providing up to date educational experiences for the students in my advanced classes, my graduate students and the many undergraduates that I taught in my lab as research students.\n\nMy question is how can we "split the difference" between commitment of funds and time to research and teaching? I just finished watching Frontline on PBS describe privatized for-profit higher education. Many colleges and universities are cutting out teaching labs, add that to cutting out faculty research and I don't think there is far to go down the slippery slope to The University of Phoenix. If US science education slides to even near that level I truly fear for future generations. We do not always know which students deserve a full science education. Let's not start intentionally denying it to those who end up in ordinary colleges and universities.
Avatar of: Dana Vaughan

Dana Vaughan

Posts: 6

May 5, 2010

I appreciate the perspective provided here, as I am one of the exhausted PUI faculty members to whom the interview refers. My best research activities are in fact carried out by my modest but real contributions to projects headquartered in powerhouse labs at top institutions. Some but not all of my fellow faculty here find that (when successful, which is increasingly rarely) our research activities recharge our batteries, keep us fresh, and - frankly - relieve the morale killing frustrations of administrivia and student immaturity that we (lacking office staff and TAs) are forced to deal with in our PUI jobs. I just came back from 4 days at "my" meeting, days I could barely scrape free since finals are next week; and I'm so fired up, I gave 3 of the best hours of classroom discussion today of my entire career. I love teaching, but it would be a grim world indeed if I could not also meaningfully involve myself -- and a few select undergraduates -- in research in my field. Some PUI faculty just can't buy-out of enough teaching, or don't have the infrastructure necessary, to fulfill the requirements of NIH's R15 AREA grant programs (which I think must continue). Why not formal sabbatical support for PUI faculty, possibly with an undergraduate "companion" apprentice? It would be something like the supplemental awards an RO1 PI can get for underrepresented persons. That would be a low cost middle ground that would do a lot of good and be more feasible for more PUI faculty.
Avatar of: Joe Staton

Joe Staton

Posts: 2

May 5, 2010

I find it disingenuous that someone from a think tank on education would take this mindset. In the sciences, we are working harder than ever to increase research experiences for undergraduates at home institutions, rather than pawn off our best students to a research I affiliate. The pattern that is described of budgets stretched too thin is best explained by too little growth in basic research in the 80s and 90s, and then the growth getting absorbed by the capacity that is out there. \n\nCutting back on research means cutting back on research, period. It does not "improve" programs, and it will hurt undergraduates at most institutions by limiting their access to participating in such programs, especially those not at the research I undergrad programs that have to compete for fewer spots in the limited REU programs available. \n\nThis is the worst sort of spin possible. True, states are poorly funding colleges, which does not help the issue. But what would really be good would be to increase the research budgets even more, and witness the incredible the return on the small fractional increase to the national budget that it would represent. Most colleges do wonderful things with not much funding, imagine the possibilities if they had twice that small amount.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 5, 2010

In principle, cutting science can only be bad because it undermines socio-cultural progress.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 5, 2010

I think the title of this article is somehow misleading. If you read Diane's remarks carefully, she was just saying that increased research funding in the past has lured many colleges into vying for a piece of pie, and somehow payed less attention to undergraduate teaching. So when research funding decreases in the next few years, some colleges have to adjust to it and shift their focuses back to teaching, and that can be a good thing for undergraduates.I don't see where she suggested that cutting science is good.
Avatar of: DIANE HUSIC

DIANE HUSIC

Posts: 4

May 5, 2010

I am quite amazed at some of the comments in this article. There are many good studies that show the value of undergraduate research in educating students and in helping to maintain faculty vitality (in the classroom and in scholarship). For starters, I refer readers to the Research Corporation website and the report by David Lopatto entitled "Science in Solution:\nThe Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning". Secondly, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) just published a monograph entitled "Transformative Research at Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions". There are many good examples of innovative research involving undergraduate students -- that are not coming at the expense of the quality of education of the student body as a whole. The Teagle Foundation published a white paper in 2007 entitled "Student Learning and Faculty Research: Connecting Teaching and Scholarship" that is available for free online. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Survey of Student Engagement both identify undergraduate research as a "high impact practice" in student learning.\n\nI could list many other lines of evidence. And for many years, institutions, including community colleges, have been involving in institutionalizing undergraduate research -- across the disciplines, for students at many levels (not just the premiere upper level students), creating research-rich curricula, etc. \n\nSadly, it is true that financial resources don't allow this high impact practice to occur at every insitution or for all students.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

May 5, 2010

I agree with the vision of the article in the sense that I see that universities as being teaching and research institutions is unsustainable unless they develop two distinct faculty tenure tracks, one for teaching and the other for research. I work at a public state university, faculty here are told to give more importance to scholar and money raising activities as major requirements for tenure than to teaching. I see this policy as detrimental to the general undergraduate education. Students would be better served if they had teachers fully devoted to teaching, but with access to faculty researchers with whom they could have research experience. Universities try to achieve all that in the cheap way by having one person do it all. The problem boils down to if universities can actually afford to have major research centers. If we want to increase research activity, probably we should then consider creating more research centers independently from universities, it would be suicidal to reduce research spending as suggested in the article.
Avatar of: Roger Rowlett

Roger Rowlett

Posts: 2

May 5, 2010

Diane Auer Jones seems to be spectacularly uninformed about the synergism between research and teaching at primarily undergraduate institutions. As Diane Husic has pointed out in a previous post, undergraduate research is a high-impact educational practice, and it has been amply demonstrated that undergraduate participation in high-quality research is an important factor in the recruitment and retention of students in STEM disciplines. I also have observed in my travels to many undergraduate institutions that faculty who remain actively involved in research are also more current in the fields of study, making them more effective and inspirational teachers.\n\nMs. Jones ?solution? to maintaining a research presence at PUIs is laughable. If PUI faculty are too ?exhausted? to do research at their home institution, how does a joint research appointment or a partnership at a research university improve things? And how does such a research appointment (and the outsourcing of research and research facilities) benefit undergraduates at a PUI? Science education is moving away from the traditional classroom, and is increasingly embracing the teamwork and problem solving venue of the research laboratory. Professional societies, such as the American Chemical Society, endorse undergraduate research as an important component of a science curriculum. It is worth noting that PUIs are the baccalaureate origins of future Ph.D.s at a rate significantly higher than research institutions on a per-capita basis.\n\nMs. Jones also propagates a few factual whoppers in her interview. The first of these is that only a few, top-notch, students get to participate in research at primarily undergraduate institutions. An undergraduate is far more likely to be involved in a research at a PUI than at most research universities. At our college, which is not unlike many other liberal arts colleges, many if not most science departments require all graduating seniors to be involved in research as a condition of earning a bachelor?s degree. Second, Ms. Jones relates that the Research Experiences for Undergraduate program ?funds research universities to host students from non-research institutions.? This is patently false, as there is no such institutional restriction in this NSF-funded program. Indeed, there are many undergraduate institutions (including our own, which was an REU site for 7 consecutive years) that have held or currently hold NSF-REU grants.\n\nBut perhaps the biggest whopper of all is setting up the straw man of an inherent dichotomy between teaching and research. One does not ?choose? one path over the other: teaching and research are complementary, necessary activities of true teacher-scholars, the kind of faculty we should aspire our undergraduates to be associated with.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

May 5, 2010

While there might be good reasons to reduce or redirect funding, the logic in this interview doesn't stand up under scrutiny. The person interviewed seems disconnected from the reality of modern academic life and how the bills at universities are paid. Universities hire and support researchers not because of an intrinsic interest in research or science, but to garner big grants with high amounts of overhead--the money is used to back-fill declining revenues from other sources (particularly at state universities). High overhead rates enable NIH and other agencies to influence hiring and other priorities at universities. When overhead dollars disappear the emphasis will shift to lower cost programs. These programs will assuredly not include expensive things like courses in the biological and physical sciences (with those time-intensive, costly laboratory sections). Heaven help us if this is what passes for current science policy.
Avatar of: Fred Schaufele

Fred Schaufele

Posts: 52

May 5, 2010

I agree with others (and the person interviewed) that the increase in research funding was used by Universities to fund the salaries of their lecturers. What we really experienced was an increased recruitment into research made necessary to took up the slack of a decreased commitment to education by the States. In many ways, particularly when one delves into how the indirect costs are used to support infrastructure (including buildings), the research budget is an indirect federal subsidy to the global educational mission of the University. \n\nI am guessing that the person interviewed views that negatively. Even if I agreed, the solution to restrict research funding will not result in the States coming up with the funds to support the teaching duties of the Professors. Instead, there will be layoffs and a much worse student to teach ratio than there currently is. Education will suffer. \n\nRegardless of the education issue, I see no value to research in the changes proposed. If anything, the proposal will concentrate research innovation in the hands of the lucky few (including me) who happen to be at a major research institution. ALL who have good ideas and visions must have the opportunity to research funds. That is why we have peer review, which takes into acoount the quality of research proposals in relationship to the infrastructure available to, and capabilities of, the researcher.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 6, 2010

Im a 4th year phD student at a top university coming out of a low income undergraduate school with a research program largely funded by the NIH. During my 4 years I spent 2yrs in a active laboratory. I was a co-Author of 2 papers in the JBC and a first author on 1 paper in RNA. I learned more as a undergraduate in a single month in the laboratory then in four years of lecture. The classroom can not replace the teaching that takes place at the bench.\n Furthermore students coming from low income colleges like mine will not be able to compete with those going to well funded institutions. Any graduate student recruiter can tell you that the first thing they look for is research experience. I'm not particulary brilliant I finished with a 3.7 gpa but I proved myself in the laboratory by seeing the big picture having an eye for experimental design and having the tenacity to follow a difficult project through. These are all qualities that are missed in the classroom which mainly centers on the memorization of a large number of facts. I have largely outperformed my big instituion partners especially those without undergraduate research experience. Yet without the research training I recieved as a undergraduate I would probaly not be among them. \n
Avatar of: Robert Bachman

Robert Bachman

Posts: 2

May 6, 2010

As the anonymous Ph.D. student noted, genuine research experience as an undergraduate made a real difference in his/her academic career. I have personally witnesses this impact numerous times in my career, which has spanned both an R1 institution and a liberal arts college PUI. \n\n\nJones seems to imply that the only reason grants are awarded to faculty at PUIs is out of political maneuvering through the idea of "broader impacts" rather than the quality of the scientific ideas. My research projects moved with me from my previous R1 post to my current post at a PUI. This leads to the question about whether the work was somehow more "legitimate" before my choice to relocate. Interestingly, in most of my reviews (both awarded and declined grants) the area of broader impacts was often one of the areas found lacking since coming to a rural PUI, with limited options for outreach or other synergistic activities. It should also be noted that truly transformative research has been carried out at PUIs for a fraction of the cost of a typical R1. So if supporting more research with less money is the goal, than it would be better to scrap R1 programs and put the money at the PUIs\n\nAnother troubling point is the idea that undergraduates should simply gain experience in research through the REU program. This attitude is illogical but all too common (it is apparent in the Amgen Scholars program, which I commented on in these pages a few years back). If involving undergraduates in research projects for 8-10 weeks over the summer with a faculty member (or more likely a graduate student) they will likely never see again is beneficial, than having students working on research with a faculty member that they have a four year relationship with throughout the year (including the summer) must certainly be a positive thing. \n\nWhile many faculty at my current PUI institution do indeed "scrape by" with limited, mostly internal, funding for their research projects, others have successfully navigated the peer review process and secured major federal funding. In all cases, the students have benefited from working closely with the faculty on a topic that all are passionate about. Moreover, we have in most cases found some level of balance for each member of the faculty. Some are more research active, some are more teaching active; but all are engaged in the education of the next generation of scientists. \n\n
Avatar of: Avi Wener

Avi Wener

Posts: 1

May 8, 2010

I'm a little confused as to all the fuss. From what I've been reading recently, the state of scientific research is pretty upbeat. According to the recently released report by BIO (see the BIO Report) employment is up in the sector and lab techs and research staff are making more money than I ever remember. Also, there was a great article recently posted on genomeweb (see genomeweb) that highlights the extremely positive effect that the stimulus package had on basic science research. While the article warns that the stimulus funding will dry up in 2 years leaving some scrambling for funds, we should certainly take it while we can get it. Furthermore, since a huge portion of the funding was used to purchase shared capital equipment, the bulk of what will be needed going forward will be operating funds. Perhaps receiving more "collaborative grants" will help us learn how to make more efficient use of our research dollars.
Avatar of: Bryan Heidorn

Bryan Heidorn

Posts: 1

May 20, 2010

The story correctly identifies one of the reasons that there has been a major shift toward reliance on research funding. State and local governments have cut support for higher education. In the current recession they are cutting support even more. As research funds are reduced colleges and universities will not be able to increase teaching substantially because there are no new funds to support teaching. As has been true for hundreds of years only the rich can afford to provide tuition at a level to support teaching. Since state and local governments are not going to pick up the slack, the total number of available spaces for students and teachers in higher education will need to be reduced. In other words, reduction in research funds does not increase teaching funds and will not lead to increased teaching. It is much more likely that there will be fewer teachers, fewer spots for students in the classrooms and fewer spots in the labs.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 12

May 20, 2010

Not long ago, AAAS released the 2011 U. S. R&D budget. As always, more than half of the money (78 billion) is for the defense department. NIH is second, with 31 billion, DOE is third, at 11 billion (4 of this for nuclear weapons), NASA gets almost 11 billion.\n\nThe National Science Foundation, which funds most of the research that gets done at smaller academic institutions, gets about 5.5 billion. \n\nAll the other agencies - EPA, USGS, USDA, NOAA, etc., together get around 10 billion.\n\nSo when this person talks about "cutting science" and focusing federal funding on big institutions, one hopes that she means cutting bloated military budgets and absurd "science" activities like launching a piece of Isaac Newton's apple tree into space. \n\nThe rest of us need some support to find ways to keep ourselves and other living things alive on the only habitable planet any of us are ever going to have the opportunity to occupy, and ways to convince students that they are participants and not just spectators in these endeavors. \n\nDemocratization of science builds a community of stakeholders that will continue to support research endeavors in the future. If research is only conducted by "elite" institutions, then it won't be long before it is not funded with tax dollars at all.

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