@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.”)