It’s Not The Money, Stupid!

This guest editorial is by Allen J. Bard, a chemistry professor and director of the Center for Electrochemistry at the University of Texas, Austin.

The culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity, and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money (often now called “resources”) raised. A number of factors have played a role in this change: the “business model” for universities, an increased willingness to accept greed as a virtue in our society and as a measure of success, and a desire for an easy “objective” measure of something that is otherwise difficult to quantify.

As a result, we have reached the point where faculty members are judged more by the amount of research funds they have raised, primarily from government agencies, than by the accomplishments that flow from the funding. Obtaining high levels of funding is considered not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, and I’ve been party to tenure discussions that have centered on this (for example, on the need for “scoring two major grants”) rather than on the quality of work.

It is possible to rationalize this attitude by saying that funds raised are a measure of how one is evaluated by one’s peers. The fact is, however, that the final decision to fund really comes from project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the month. It is also true that the best grant-swingers are those who are willing shamelessly to hype their research and their field—truth and modesty be damned.

The result of this cultural shift, as we have heard over and over from colleagues, is that one spends 70% of one’s working time writing proposals and seeking funding. Thus, not only do we operate under a model where highly trained scientists are almost immediately removed from direct hands-on research upon arriving at a faculty position, but now are also largely removed even from close research supervision of students.

As the system develops, the probability of being funded on any given project gets smaller and smaller, so one must keep writing and sending in proposals that have to be processed and evaluated by a growing number of project officers, but, alas, by a fixed number of peers. The agencies, forever seeking more funding from the government, also keep inventing an alphabet soup of new programs. These come with an increasing bureaucratic burden of accepting the funds, thus guaranteeing an ever-increasing time commitment by investigators.

A more recent and potentially even more damaging trend is a growing expectation by universities that faculty should help fund operations not only through overhead from research grants, but also through the generation of intellectual property (IP). Faculty is heavily encouraged to generate patents and find partners to license them, or, even better, to nucleate new start-up companies. To advance this agenda, universities are hiring highly paid administrators—with visions of Warfarin and Gatorade dancing in their heads—to head technology commercialization efforts. These are intended not only to generate additional funds for the university, but also to demonstrate to the public the “economic value” of the university to society. These kinds of activities have even been described as “critical to the mission of a university.” While such considerations have not yet become a major influence on promotion and tenure decisions, one has reason to fear for the future.

No wonder we have problems with attracting good young people to careers in academic science despite large outreach efforts. If working closely with students and doing long-term fundamental research is not the goal and money is the important thing, there are more lucrative professions than academic ones for them to pursue. I also fear that the perceived importance of money in science has led to a public backlash on issues like climate change and chemical toxicity, with the feeling that scientists are pushing these areas to get funding and not necessarily because they believe all that they report. This indeed is tragic.

Allen J. Bard

Author: Rudy Baum

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10 Comments

  1. This is really a fantastic article by Prof. Bard that nails the fallacy of evaluating faculty worth literally in dollars. If we want to attract and retain the best educators (not just scientists) this practice has got to change. The education of the next generation of thinkers fundamentally depends on the commitment that their mentors can put into their teaching, something that’s inherently constrained when the mentors have to spend all their time scurrying around for grants. Texas A & M which has recently been discussing a new system of evaluation of their faculty dominantly based on the amount of money they bring in is surely taking a step in the wrong direction, as is clear from Prof. Bard’s article.

  2. The sky is simply not falling. The focus was already on grantsmanship when I was in graduate school 20 years ago. My own advisor rarely came into the lab, except to berate us for spending too much money in the department stockroom. And Bayh-Dole was passed 30 years ago. Neither of these changes seems to have reduced the competitiveness of applicants to faculty positions, nor the prestige accorded to Ph.D. students who state an interest in that career path.

  3. Indeed, Professor Bard has hit the nail on the head.

    Letting the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme, I noticed that not all of his colleagues share this opinion: The two candidates for the office of ACS president both wrote statements on their plans if elected to that office. Both uniformly wanted to increase the level of financial support for scientific research. Both are professors at research-active universities. A side-effect of their poorly-concealed agenda is an over-production of chemistry PhDs, far above and beyond the capacity of the labor market to absorb highly trained scientific researchers. In that sense, the “rot” that Professor Bard has identified at the heart of the academic-research has spread beyond the halls of the university.

  4. Thanks for the interesting editorial, Prof. Bard.

  5. At last someone spoke. Thank you Prof. Allen for speaking out so clearly and boldly about a very sensitive and critical issue. I hope & pray that this trend is checked before it is too late.

  6. Thank you for a great editorial Professor Bard.

  7. Thank you for the perceptive analysis of the transformation, so evident from one glance at an ACS journal from the 1960’s. Under the topic of “willing to hype their research and their field” one might add the institution of TOC’s and the (irresistible) urge for journal covers. When scientific illustrations are decoupled from text, they start to advertise instead of illuminate.

  8. I strongly agree with Professor Bard’s viewpoints.

  9. Prof Allen J Bard has made a very good point which touched the bottom of my heart. I have almost been pushed out of doing research in lab, and have only a few hours to discuss projects with my students every week. I feel “guilty” when I do the experiments because I “should” spend more time on “funding” “proposal” “networking” or what ever which can bring money in. Publishing quality papers are not important once the funding is secured (a common view?). Those are not correct! Thanks Allen Bard who has made it more clear in this article

  10. Lets consider even progress of Science as a part of evolution, so the natural selection would act on it. So if most of the people cares about value of real science being done is important, then it will knock that door of destiny of science, and really good scientists will be promoted to do good science. Once this is a understood the future scientist will have to decide how to do science at what time. We all know 1st and 2nd world war faithed too much investment in science and technology, because it was need to win the war that time and scientist in that era got too much name and fame during there life time, but many scientist like Newton, Galileo, Mendel never seen that there discoveries are very popular in world in their own time. So if u wanna do something be firm on your principle and u have to fight like these, but at the end of life u may or may not get the credit. hence these days most of the scientists opt for short time win and enjoys the day today life because either their inside voice or surrounding does not appeal or favor for doing great science. This is what happening these days. So for long term its individual who has to decide, and Nature will select who is intelligent and who is not.”
    Its Natures problem not ours
    Kinda philosophical