Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

R. I. P., Ivory Tower

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2015/02/15

There was a time, well within living memory, when academic institutions expected their faculty to teach conscientiously and to do research with the resources provided by the institution. Freedom to follow one’s hunches was aided by tenure.

Then governments started to support research through separate agencies, and faculty could obtain support from them; whereupon academic institutions increasingly came to view their faculty as geese bringing in golden financial eggs from those government agencies. At my first job in the USA, the Research Director at my university tripled the budget I had estimated in a grant application, in order to increase what the university could rake off the top for “overhead”, “indirect costs”, and even reimbursement of part of my salary.

For a decade or so, everyone loved this arrangement, because the funding sources had enough goodies to distribute to satisfy almost everyone asking for them. But then more and more people wanted to feed at that same trough, and things became competitive and then cutthroat. For instance, if you were an engineer at my university 30 years ago and wanted tenure, you needed to bring in about $100,000 annually, and if you wanted to be a full professor your target was $300,000 annually.

I’ve described how The Science Bubble has continued to bloat and become increasingly dysfunctional in EdgeScience #17.

Faculty as milch cows for their institutions was invented in the USA, but the innovation has become viral. Here  is a description of one of the consequences in England.

As I was beginning my career in Australia more than half a century ago, academe seemed and largely was an ivory tower in which one could pursue scholarly and scientific interests sheltered from the hurly-burly rat-race of industry with its single-minded pursuit of commercial profit. So I was surprised in the mid-1950s in the USA when a newly minted chemistry PhD told me that he was planning to enter industry in order to get out of the academic rat-race. How prescient he was.

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3 Responses to “R. I. P., Ivory Tower”

  1. dondeg said

    Once again, Sir, you have nailed it. Don’t get me started on the horror stories. And I have to try to submit two NIH grants this year.

    • Henry Bauer said

      dondeg:
      I appreciate the benefits of retirement more and more….
      Quite seriously: Many friends of my generation agree with me that we experienced golden years for academe and research — 1950s through 1960s, tapering off in the 1970s — the likes of which are unlikely to be seen again in any foreseeable future. And we feel something like survivor guilt in empathy with those still battling the system.

      • dondeg said

        I agree completely. At least you are on the sympathetic side. Some of your slightly younger peers who are on the verge of retiring haven’t done anything to help matters. For example, a good chunk of them got tenured with ~10-15 paper and 1 NIH grant. A majority of these people have voted to increase the P&T factors so one needs ~20-25 papers and at least 2 NIH grants to get tenured now. I call this “eating your own”. Why would they be driven to such activity? Multiple choice:

        (A) They don’t see the long term detriment to the specialties.
        (B) They think only of their own short-term self-interest and don’t care about the younger generations
        (C) They cave to the pressure of administrators, who, as you say, want to speed up the rate at which the geese lay golden eggs.
        (D) They think they are smarter than the younger ones and so make it harder to join the club
        (E) All of the above

        It is this same group of people that has led tenured-tenure track faculty from being ~ 75% a couple decades ago to < 33% of all faculty today.

        You are right, you were from a privileged generation. I do not think it will ever be seen again. I think the system is on the verge of collapse.

        We just hired a new "vice president of diversity". There you go…that is really going to shore up the core missions of teaching, research and service. Administrator bloat is out of control. It is like cancer eating the system alive.

        Oops! There you go…you got me started!

        Best wishes, Henry, in spite of it all…

        Don

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