The Quantum Pontiff

The 1/6th People

@EricRWeinstein is at it again in twitterland, this time on the subject of the funding of science. For an intriguing read about the glut of Ph.D.s versus science funding, he links to his (circa 1998?) article titled: “How and Why Government, Universities, and Industry Create Domestic Labor Shortages of Scientists and High-Tech Workers.” An interesting read, to say the least. Then @michael_nielsen points to Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion by Daniel Greenberg which I now have to go out and buy. Damn you internet for pointing me to things I should read!

Which brings me to the title of this post. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about funding. Actually ever since I started as a research scientist and then research faculty there really hasn’t been a time I’ve not been thinking about funding! Funding is, of course, important for all faculty, but for research faculty like me, who must pay their own salary, its even more important. While a non-research-professor may not get tenure for not getting funding, they live a very different life in which they get 10 months of salary for teaching (I also teach (when I can), because I think its important, because I like it, and because sometimes I flatter myself and think I might actually be imparting some useful knowledge down the branches of history.) To say this creates a slightly different calculus is true, though I don’t want to over exaggerate the differences: funding is seen as the lifeblood of a successful academic (never mind the content or lack thereof of the research, but we can save that for another day.)

So how do I get by? If I tell you my secret I’d have to kill you. (Okay, yeah, I’ll admit my secret: pure blind luck!) And let me just say to the funding agencies who have supported me thankyou, thankyou, thankyou! Heh. But one thing that really bothers me a lot is a policy that I must say I find nearly immoral. In particular I would point to the policy of the NSF to only fund faculty for 2 months of salary across all of their grants. Of course only a faculty member could ever call a rule like this immoral, especially in a world which knows much greater problems than the petty sagas of a first world researcher. But to me this policy reeks of ethical problems. (And yes, you can get exceptions, but you, dear reader, are you going to write a grant where you press this boundary? Really? Every grant I write will be asking for an exception.)

Immoral? Really, Mr. Pontiff? Okay stick with me here. Let’s just think about what this means from the perspective of value. Think of the NSF as a consumer of science. By saying it will only pay 2 months salary for faculty it is effectively saying that it only values one sixth of a faculties effort (at most.) Across all research grants. Okay, so faculty (most) teach, so maybe there is a reason the NSF should only be paying for 1/6th of their time (want to know what the real ratio of time they spend on the grant is? Bet it’s not 1/6th.) So let’s set aside this complaint.

No what is worse for me is the way in which this changes the balance of NSF funding. Suppose I get a NSF grant for three years for, say $100000 per year (not an unusual size.) If one is really lucky one lives at a place where you could pay 1/6th of your salary from this and then one graduate student for the year (doesn’t work for me but may work elsewhere.) In effect this means that the NSF is effectively equating 1/6th of a faculty with a graduate student. Now personally, I find that this disturbing. First, there is no way I’m worth 6 graduate students (ask my grad students if you want proof of this.) And further this is exactly the sort of funding equation that causes the glut in academia: the NSF funds the students but not the end point of where these students will go. As I’ve said in the past, I’m all for increased funding of sciences (special interest group, you know!), but only if this in a manner where the end point of the education is not necessarily inside of academia. But if you look at what the NSF is funding, I’d be hard pressed to argue that it is designed to produce well educated scientists who can work outside of academia. I call this the 1/6ths problem: the NSF is pricing into its support of research 6 graduate students per faculty, should we be surprised if single faculty positions routinely draw greater than 300 applications?

Now this is all a lot of complaining from a guy whose got a good job, where he gets to work on some awesome stuff. So despite the fact that I don’t like this policy at all, it would be bad if I just complained and didn’t point out any way to fix the problem. One way would be to change the policy, but this doesn’t quite do it for me. What I would like to see is pay-go. That is the NSF funding of graduate students should only be able to provide such support if it can project that the economy or its future funding can support said graduate student. Currently the NSF is funding people who it does not continue to support, and ill prepares these students for jobs outside of academia. Fix these (by increasing the ratio of faculty/student funding, or funding better preparation of students for jobs outside of academia) and I think we will all be better off. Except for me (who will be emailing his PM trying to explain why he wrote a blog post containing the words “NSF” and “immoral.”)


  1. #1 Steve Flammia
    November 23, 2009

    Maybe the funding agents should take their cue from previous similar labor standards in the US and use 3/5 as the defining ratio.

  2. #2 Jon
    November 24, 2009

    I agree that the NSF shouldn’t be counting on six graduate students for every professor. This gets research done cheaply, but ends up hurting a lot of people. Graduate students may often be smart, but they can also be disconnected from reality, and don’t realize just how bad their job prospects really are.

    I don’t think that is really the issue here, though. Your argument has a hole in it. As a research professor, your department can’t pressure you to take more graduate students. You can simply ask the NSF for 1/6th of your salary, whatever miscellaneous costs you have as a theorist (travel, etc.), and nothing for graduate students. Therefore this decision does not affect research professors regarding graduate students. On the other hand, a tenure-track professor, who is under pressure to take graduate students, doesn’t need more than 1/6th salary from NSF (isn’t 9 months more standard?), so this decision also doesn’t affect them.

    You are trying to frame this as a moral problem. The practical affect of the policy has nothing to do with graduate students, though. It only means that the NSF wants to fund research professors less than tenured or tenure-track professors. This only affects graduate students indirectly.

  3. #3 Sesu
    November 24, 2009

    Interesting post, and it is a bit of a dilemma. I don’t, however, agree with your solution of pay/go.

    If that system were operating now, with the hiring freezes and lack of opportunity for PhD and postdocs to get faculty positions, they would be funding a minute number of graduate students. That could hamstring a PI’s work!

    More discussion of non academic positions would certainly be valuable, but more so in some fields than others. For example, behavioral ecologists have limited options for non research work.

    I think part of the problem here lies with funding, as you say, but also on how we now do science. Big name labs are often large, are involved with big expensive projects, have shit-tons of grad students and get high tier papers. Big groups are (sometimes) successful and grad students are like lottery tickets. The more you have, the more likely you are to get the winner (woohoo Nature pub). It may also be hard to convince people to cut back on lackeys.

  4. #4 Rocky Humbert
    November 24, 2009

    For 2009, the ENTIRE NSF budget was $6 Billion (see: ).

    In contrast, last year Pfizer spend $7.94 Billion on R&D and IBM spent $6.34 Billion. (Their annual report don’t break out the their University grants, but both companies have active external programs.)

    My point: NSF pursues an important mission; but the dollars involved are miniscule compared the R&D activities in the commercial sector. It is therefore difficult to place all blame on NSF practices for sucking grad students into dead-end, unfunded positions.

    A question would be: how do NSF practices differ from current corporate research grants? It would be interesting to learn whether the private sector is more “moral”….

  5. #5 Eric Lund
    November 24, 2009

    the NSF is pricing into its support of research 6 graduate students per faculty

    It’s worse than that, Dave. Ph.D. students typically turn over every 5-6 years. Faculty positions are typically for ~30 years. So that means NSF is telling faculty that they should produce 30-odd grad students through their career. That will plug up the pipeline in a hurry.

  6. #6 Dave Bacon
    November 24, 2009

    “You can simply ask the NSF for 1/6th of your salary, whatever miscellaneous costs you have as a theorist (travel, etc.), and nothing for graduate students”

    I believe if I wrote such a grant they would say “why aren’t you educating graduate students.” Want to make a bet? I’m willing to try if you’re willing to bet :)

  7. #7 Jon
    November 24, 2009

    With a sentence of explanation (that does not mention the Three-Fifths Compromise!), I bet it would work fine. You can also compromise and ask for support for a visiting graduate student over the summer, i.e., 1/6th of a graduate student. Or you can submit a proposal with two PIs, asking to support only one graduate student. In either case, I bet they’d check the education box off and move on to evaluating the proposed research.

  8. #8 Pieter Kok
    November 24, 2009

    Can you call a job where you have to find your own salary really a job?

  9. #9 Geoff
    November 24, 2009

    And this is part of why I, as a graduate student, am approaching things with the attitude of “I’ll make as great a contribution to expanding human knowledge as I can now, as a graduate student, because I probably won’t get to once I have my Ph.D.”

    While I feel sadness regarding my own prospects, I grudgingly agree that this system has seemed to work out for our species. The competitive research process has seemed to really drive the expansion of knowledge, even if this produces a system that produces more researchers than can be maintained. We are an incredible boon to society – energetic, highly skilled researchers, contributing to human knowledge for a low financial outlay. Our only demand is the opportunity to do science, for a little while at least.

    But yes, there is room for including, as part of the system, a mechanism for turning pure science researchers into industrial researchers, or effective teachers… society could benefit even further.

  10. #10 James Graber
    November 25, 2009

    About the excess ratio of grad students to professors: I think this is a good thing, because the main useful output of the system is not professors. The social good of the entire scientific graduate level academic system depends on its primary product, which is industrial scientists. Nobel prize winners are the second most valuable product, and ordinary professors are only the third most valuable output of the system. Other lower level outputs of course include government bureaucrats, cab drivers and burger flippers, and inmates of mental institutions. But the value of the system resides overwhelmingly in its primary output.
    Jim Graber

  11. #11 David
    November 25, 2009

    Peter said: Can you call a job where you have to find your own salary really a job?

    I’m often surprised how many research-oriented-professor types don’t incorporate non-profit cos. under the aegis of creating understanding and building knowledge for the common good. Then submitting for all-sources grants. You can even run your own teaching outreach programs as you see fit, and you aren’t constrained to producing ‘graduates’ of a certain standard {BS, MS, …).

  12. #12 matt
    November 27, 2009

    Thanks for writing this, Dave. I agree, this is a moral issue. The real moral issue for me is the large number of professors who fall to the temptation to game the system. An education part to your grant helps you get it, and having previous students become professors, especially at good schools helps it even more. So, people churn out uninteresting papers to make student projects, oversell the results, and overrecommend the students. The worst thing about it is that it actually hurts the field. Feynman had, I think, 35 papers total. That would be considered rather unproductive today. And partly as a result, I see a number of absolutely outstanding junior people (within a few years of their PhD and yet who have already made great contributions) who are leaving the field, mostly, I guess, because they see that they will have to struggle through a series of low-level positions while crap work gets shouted from the rooftops.

    As an example, take entanglement sudden death. It’s just so egregious I can’t help but mention it. A paper in Science, and probably quite a few citations soon, since it’s so easy to write papers about…that’s the kind of thing that can help make a career. But there’s not a damn thing to it! It’s the kind of thing I might pose as a question at a general exam just to see if someone actually understands the geometry of quantum states…and I’d expect a correct answer within about 15 seconds of thought. I really think that writing a paper about something like that—and following up with a “review” article—is immoral. It hurts the field for personal gain. With all that noise, how can some of the real interesting and creative work that students are doing now get recognized? This is, of course, just one example.