Thoughts on Academic Research

Many disparate sources of information are pointing to a crisis in higher education research, but strangely different disciplines are reacting in different ways. Now the crisis I am talking about is related to research, not the many other crises in higher education such as access, exorbitant prices and spending on athletics and administration. No, I worry more about how the model of scientific structure for the last 50 years or more, where professors at universities limited mostly by their own curiosity pushed the frontiers of human knowledge, is breaking down.

First, let me touch on how the other higher education crises are feeding in here. The lack of public funding of research institutions and the misallocation of resources (into athletics, amenities and administration) has two major implications on research: PhDs outnumbering academic positions by a staggering amount and a commercialization of ALL scientific research.

The first implication affects the status of science as meritocratic with the cream rising to the top and it does so at many levels. Right now people are still getting PhDs (and the sciences are only a bit better) in increasing numbers despite the deteriorating job opportunities. However, that will not persist as the economy improves and the opportunity cost of getting a PhD increases. Who says the best and brightest are going to stick around under these conditions?

Then there is the fight over who actually gets academic spots. The increasing alignment of college status and socioeconomic status means those of relatively more affluent families are stocking the halls of the best schools in the nation. The relative paucity of academic positions means that the top tier of schools graduates enough people to fill all available positions, a fact true in practice as well. However, the journey to tenure is an increasingly long one; you are looking at multiple postdocs and an average age of around 35 before you get your first tenure track position. So you are underpaid (or go into debt) for graduate school only to continue to be underpaid as a postdoc (along with moving all the time) for a handful of years for the uncertain payoff of the beginnings of an academic position.

Now some might argue that this is a trial-by-fire that cleanses those unfit for research. This is true at some level, but I have to question if it is selecting the right traits. This process mostly encourages conscientiousness, an important trait for sure but not the only one vital for scientific research. I worry we might be breeding creativity out of our scientists by this arduous process. Furthermore, are there unintended consequences on which research paths to pursue? All of this uncertainty before you hit tenure track and even after, may encourage a more conservative research agenda proven to get publications and results while neglecting riskier research areas that are potentially more fruitful for science as a collective endeavor. This is particularly worrisome once you throw in the cutthroat competition for research money. You could have the fortitude and courage to try your hand at unproven fields and yet still be stymied by lack of funds.

This brings me to the second implication of the altering landscape of school funding and spending: the increasing commercialization of research. This is most apparent in the life sciences since the lines of inquiry in that field are so obviously profitable compared to lets say the Higgs Boson. You see more professional misconduct in those fields than any other, from fudging or fabricating data to just being so sloppy nobody can replicate.
Just as worryingly you see scientists hiding information or patenting “their” inventions, which I find antithetical to the scientific endeavor. This isn’t exclusive to life sciences; I saw very dubious growth model paper in economics where the authors hid much of their methods because they expected to use it for investment purposes. This enrages me because these people are all funded by the government at some level and to steal a phrase “stand on the shoulder of giants.” I already find it abhorrent how pharmaceutical companies have profited off basic research, but to see professors hobbling science by hiding information to make money is doubly disappointing. In my own field a lot of money and effort have been poured into analyzing the D-Wave quantum computer because as a commercial product it’s essentially a black box. Maybe those resources will be well spent as we understand better what makes something a quantum computer, but I suspect it would have been a lot cheaper if the D-Wave people had released their internal data.

A more subtle problem is how the change in funding is reorienting fields. For instance, sociology is in a theory crisis. The hot topic is narrow experimental studies that have popular appeal. Nobody wants to take a broad look across sociology to construct theoretical models that will only be read by a small group of peers. I find this crazy as to me the essence of science is synthesizing data to create models, but that may be the physicist in me talking.  In any case, theory is devalued because it “cannot be marketed, “Gladwellized” or sensationalized in the same way as empirically oriented books.”

Economics has the opposite problem because so many outside groups are invested in the field. Every economist is prompted to give their opinion on macroeconomics, either because of political allegiance or inducement from some organization. Of course, many of them prove to be unqualified to talk about macro, but do it anyway and continue to do so even after being proven wrong. Economics does not seem to be an evidence based discipline. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” In fact, economics is one of the most profitable academic disciplines to enter because it has so many commercial prospects. Once again, one must wonder if this monetary influence is hurting the profession; maybe too much emphasis on finance or on models that justify some particular business interest or ideology.

Even in my field of physics you see an alignment of funding with commercial payoff. By far the biggest field in physics is condensed matter (think semiconductors and superconductors). Maybe that is for the best, semiconductors are after all why I am even able to type this, but you see the effect in more insidious ways. Every grant proposal is enhanced by an appeal to utility. Quantum computers would have little funding if they didn’t have such obvious consequences for national defense. Similarly, I have nothing against astrophysics (in fact I want to study that field when I was younger) or particle physics, but a large part of their funding success is that they have managed to capture popular appeal.

These considerations don’t seem the best way to allocate resources in science, but it will continue down this road as public funding for universities and basic research stalls. As resources become scarce it is only natural to find other sources or to insist that research have immediate application. However, this is short-sighted as nobody can predict the path of scientific breakthroughs.

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