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
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.
|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.
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.
And what makes that a bad thing?
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.
If research funding dwindles as expected over the next five years, will some schools migrate back to their teaching roots?
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.
What are the options for administrations and faculty looking at tightening budgets?
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]