Welcome to Clothing the Emperor

Welcome to Clothing the Emperor, a forum for the serious exchange of ideas on topics important to academia and to scholarship that we believe could benefit from open discussion, transparent analysis, and challenges to the common-sense assumptions that maintain the status quo.   As in the classic fable by Hans Christian Andersen, it is surprising how readily assertions can become accepted while our experiences tell us they cannot be true, or at least not the whole story.  Simply stating the obvious can be an effective way to change the conversation.

The inaugural discussion topic we are inviting you to comment on and propose needed scholarship concerns the interactions among University policies, the increased reliance on extramural (in the sciences primarily from government) funding sources, and academic norms.    We have become concerned that short-term decision making may not be considering what the appropriate roles for institutional and extramural support in shaping the conduct of scholarship and education should be.    We question whether the current incentive structure for research universities and scholar-scientists is truly conducive to innovative research , consistent with the norms of academic science, and sustainable over the long term. Although various parties have called for a new compact between universities and the federal government, what is the status of the current compact, what are its strengths and deficiencies, and what might be more viable alternatives?

We have been thinking about this from our own perspective at JSMF and the changes we have observed in research budgets on grant submissions over the last few decades.   Accepting that academic culture is not static and that external funding has influenced the structure of the modern American research university in various ways for more than a century, we wonder if the current decision making and responses to financial pressures are altering academic norms in a way neither consistent with its inherent purposes nor sustainable in the future.

Below we raise a few questions to help initiate discussion:

  • Is the Renaissance Studies scholar whose salary is often fully paid by the University valued as much as the Imaging Center director who raises his or her own salary in addition to other revenues from extramural grants?
  • Does having to raise your own salary from extramural grants overly influence one’s choice of research topics?
  • Is the faculty member serious about pursuing truly original research, providing service to the University community, providing careful training to students and being available to colleagues recognized and rewarded – or is the metric of value tied to grant dollars and indirect costs?
  • Is the continual building of new research space, the proliferation of new institutes and centers, and the creation of an ever increasing number of hybrid disciplines intended to enhance scholarship or fundraising?
  • What is the potential impact of asking research funding to bear more and more of the total costs of sustaining academia?
  • Can we really afford to continually grow the academic STEM workforce? Do we need to? Or should quality, rather than quantity, be the guiding principal?

We invite you to join the conversation and contribute to a deeper understanding of the issues in a way that will be informative to universities and funding agencies.

2 thoughts on “Welcome to Clothing the Emperor

  1. the.dean.guy

    It is difficult to know where to start as these issues go to the heart of the mission of research universities, the pursuit of knowledge, and even the role of science and technology in a democratic society. Recent books by Yuval Levin (Imagining the Future) and Eric Cohen (In the Shadow of Progress) raise many of these same issues. As the dean of an academic unit that raises almost 90% of its funding from federal grants and contracts, I have witnessed many disturbing trends.

    The rise of “experts” in the United States began well over a hundred years ago, and at its heart distrusts individual rights and is often frustrated by the messiness of democracy. Technocrats supposedly have greater insight into the workings of society and have the remedies for its ills. For most of this time frame, individual scientists and professors were largely uninvolved in this growing conflict between experts and ordinary citizens.

    In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the rise of group (or collectivist) politics emerged, which is well-documented by Amity Shlaes in her book, The Forgotten Man. Politicians made their appeals to specific groups (union workers, the elderly, etc.), and government programs reflected the growing power of interest groups. With the appearance of Vannevar Bush’s book, The Endless Frontier, modern science appeared as yet another interest group worthy of government programs.

    For most of the latter part of the 20th Century, these threads of experts and democracy, individual and group politics, and science as an interest group were largely unconnected. However, the emergence of large, interdisciplinary science which was focused on societally important issues brought these together in unexpected ways.

    As science budgets grew, there was increasing demand by politicians that scientists help society, beginning with health care. This was eventually followed in many other areas of research, including nanotechnology and climate dynamics. At the same time, an increasing fraction of science required teams, not just individuals. Ideas that were “out of the box” were harder and harder to support within the federal funding structure, and universities themselves were leaving the support of scholarship solely to the government.

    In the late 20th Century, these threads came together as much of the research enterprise became entangled in policy issues. Stem cells and climate change are just two of the more notable examples. Scientists were convinced that not only did they know the science (which was clearly beyond the capability of an ordinary citizen), they knew the policies that should be enacted. Although some have accused the climate research community as seeking only to feather its own funding nest, I think there is another element: scientist as expert. There is a high level of frustration that governments simply don’t do what scientists tell them; after all they are the experts. Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke, Jr. noted this in an article in 2000 in The Atlantic Monthly. Simply having the science right does not mean that you have the politics right.

    So here we are at the beginning of the 21st Century. Science has become entwined in politics. It is dominated by group efforts and group thinking. And it is frustrated by the nature and processes of a democratic society. Interesting times, indeed!

  2. TomCarr

    There are many astute observations in the anonymous comments by the.dean.guy (whoever he or she is). Here are my reactions:
    At the end, the.dean.guy appears to say that the major problem for university science is that scientists believe they know the right policies and are peeved when people don’t listen. That IS a problem, but it is an ego problem and a political problem, not a structural problem that impacts the conduct of science or implementation of the role of the university in society. Let me explain why I say these things.
    I think that the major problem for university scientists, for basic and applied science done at universities, and sometimes the major problem WITH scientists (again in my view only) is the role that has been foisted upon them by the fact that (to quote again from the.dean.guy) “…universities themselves were leaving the support of scholarship to the government.”
    In the United States, external research support has become a major basis for keeping a university going. As a consequence, scientists are turned into CEO’s, with their goals formulated and their performance evaluated all to often in accord with the bottom line — how much money does your lab bring in. In the present academic world, as a criterion independent of what great new ideas your work might produce or whether you help to confirm or disconfirm important findings, conceptualizations, and applications, a young scientist must raise external money or get fired.
    This might seem normal, and many people do not object. And having external money (in the current system) does facilitate the research that documents great new ideas. But seeming normal is not sufficient grounds for being right. The universities constitute the knowledge-generating institutions of society. They are not supposed to make money — they are supposed to generate knowledge and teach it to others. Of course knowledge-generating activities must be paid for. But the US system of grantsmanship — intended as much to support the universities themselves as the research projects actually being funded — is not the way to do it.
    So my suggestion in JSMF’s spirit of stating the obvious is that it might be good to establish a new contract between the federal government and college education in America. We might look to Canada for a model, and we might be able to improve upon the excellent ideas to be seen there. But wherever we look for better ways to combine knowledge generation and college education, the current system of making scholars make their own money to do their research is pernicious and corrosive.
    This is not to say that there should be no competition among research ideas and support for them — but tying that competition together with the support of all of the other goals of a university creates a Gordian knot whose burden falls on individual scientist/teachers who didn’t sign on to be corporate fundraisers. Their talents might be better directed toward research and teaching, not fundraising.
    The legend of the Gordian knot calls for a bold stroke to cut and undo it. The question is — what is that bold stroke that might work in the current climate, with the current assumptions about how normal university life ought to proceed?…
    Tom Carr, Professor of Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, Michigan State University

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