Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Posts Tagged ‘overproduction of PhDs’

From uncritical about science to skeptical about science: 3

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2021/01/03

From more than ample funding to stifling competition

In the middle 1960s in the United States, I observed more of the consequences of the enormous infusion of federal resources into scientific activity that I had glimpsed as a postdoctoral researcher in the late 1950s.

Moving  from Australia, I was appointed Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky in 1966, just when the university was spreading its wings towards gaining recognition for research excellence. I was expected to help that along, given that I already had several dozen publications to my name.

Kentucky was far from alone in its ambition. The flood of federal money designed to stimulate scientific research and the training of future scientists had brought a major transformation in American academe. Four-year Liberal-Arts Colleges made themselves over into Research Universities; Teachers Colleges morphed into universities. In 1944, there had been 107 doctorate-granting institutions in the U.S.; then 142 by 1950-54, 208 by 1960-64, 307 by 1970-74 [1]. In chemistry, there had been 98 doctoral programs in 1955; by 1967 there were 165, and 192 by 1979 [2].

A presumably unforeseen consequence of pushing production of would-be researchers and wannabe research universities was that by the 1970s, demand for grant funds was exceeding the supply. At Kentucky, about half of the Chemistry Department’s proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) had been funded in the mid-to-late 1960s; but by 1978, our success rate had fallen to only 1 grant for every 10 applications. That sort of decline has continued into the 21st century: at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main source of funds for biological and medical research, the national success rate for grant applicants fell from 31% in 1997 to 20% by 2014 [3]; the average age was 42 at which an individual first obtained a grant from NIH as Principal Investigator in 2011 [4].

By the 1970s, there were more PhD mathematicians and physicists graduating than there were academic research jobs available. Some pundits speculated that the 2008 economic crash owed quite a lot to ingenious stock-trading software programs and bad-mortgage-bundling-and-valuing “securities” designed by PhD mathematicians and physicists who were working on Wall Street because they could not find positions in academe.

When I had prepared at my first research grant application to the National Science Foundation in 1966, the newly-appointed Director of the University’s Research Division rewrote my budget without consulting me, to make it twice as long in duration and four times as costly in total. When the grant was refused, and I asked the NSF manager why, he pointed out that it requested about twice as much as their usual grants. Faced with this news, our Research Director expressed surprise, claiming that one of the purposes of these federal funds was to support universities in general.

Federal grants for scientific research brought with them many perks.

My particular specialty enabled me to observe how grants for analytical chemistry made it possible to enjoy summer-time fishing and scuba diving in the Caribbean, as a necessary part of research that involved analyzing sea-water.

Some groups of grant-getters would meet before or after professional meetings at desirable locations for fun and games. In those socially boisterous 1960s-70s, traveling at will on funds from research grants made it easy, for example, to sample the topless bars in San Francisco and perhaps a performance of the norm-breaking, counter-cultural musical Hair on the way to the highly regarded Gordon Research Conferences in Santa Barbara. And why not? What could be wrong with using small amounts of our grant funds for personal recreation, just as people in business or industry might use their travel expenses.

Such a point of view was certainly not hindered by the fact that grants for scientific research routinely brought, for academics, an additional 25-33% of personal salary. Almost all academics are  routinely paid on a so-called “9-month basis”, with no teaching or other responsibilities during the three months of summer. Since scientific research would be carried on year-round, including during the summer, it seemed quite appropriate that researchers would receive a salary during that time as part of their research grants.

That practice no doubt had an undesirable side-effect, arousing or enhancing jealousy among non-science academics, and perhaps increasing the determination, among social scientists in particular, to be treated like the physicists and chemists and biologists: after all, psychologists and sociologists are scientists too, are they not? Lobbying eventually — in 1957, seven years after NSF had been established — led to the Social Science Research Program at NSF, for support of anthropology, economics, sociology, and history and philosophy of science.

Federal grants for scientific research brought with them many benefits for institutions as well as for the researchers: universities siphoned off from grants the so-called “indirect costs”, the self-justifying, much-preferred term for “overhead”. Increased scientific research placed greater obligations on the university’s libraries and physical facilities and administrative tasks, so it seemed quite proper to add to the costs of actual research, and the researcher’s summer salary, and the wages and tuition fees of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, a certain percentage that the University Administration could use to defray those added burdens. That certain percentage can be as high as 50%, or even more in the case of private, non-state-funded, universities [5].

The more the money flowed, the more necessary it became for researchers to obtain grant funds. Costs increased all the time. Scientific journals had traditionally been published by scientific societies, underwritten by membership fees and edited by society members, often without remuneration. As printing and postage costs increased, journals began to levy so-called “page charges” that soon increased to many tens of dollars per published page, particularly as an increasing number of scientific periodicals were taken over or newly founded by commercial publishers, who naturally paid professional staff including editors. Page charges were of course legitimate charges on grant funds. Academics without access to grant funds could still be published in society journals, but their second-class status was displayed for all to see as their publications carried the header or footer, “Publication costs borne by the Society”.

Increasing competition, with the stakes continually increasing, would naturally encourage corner-cutting, unscrupulous behavior, even outright cheating and faking. At least by hindsight it is clear enough that scientists and universities had been corrupted by money — willingly,  greedily; but Science itself seemed not visibly affected, could still be trusted. Dishonest behavior began to be troubling, noticeably, only by the 1980s.

The 1960s were still pleasantly high-flying years for scientific researchers. Things went well for me personally, and at the tail end of those great years I even collared my best grant yet, a five-year (1969-74) million-dollar project for fundamental work relevant to fuel cells, whose promise was something of a fad at the time.

But in the early 1970s,  the American economy turned down. The  job market for PhD scientists collapsed. Our graduate program in chemistry could not attract enough students, and, as already mentioned, we were not doing well with grant funds from NSF.

That is when my recreational interest in the Loch Ness Monster began to pay off, in entirely unforeseeable ways: leading to new insights into science and how it was changing; as well as bringing a career change.

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[1]    A Century of Doctorates: Data Analyses of Growth and Change, National Academy of Sciences, 1978
[2]    Henry H. Bauer, Fatal Attractions: The Troubles with Science,
Paraview Press, 2001, p. 166
[3]    NIH Data Book: Research Grants, 15 June 2015
[4]    W. A. Shaffer “Age Distribution – AAMC Medical School Faculty and NIH R01 Principal Investigators” (2012), cited in Michael Levitt & Jonathan M. Levitt, “Future of fundamental discovery in US biomedical research”,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 114 (#25, 2017): 6498-6503
[5]        Jocelyn Kaiser, “The base rate for NIH grants averages about 52%; NIH plan to reduce overhead payments draws fire”

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