CongressCritters Seek Advice on Research Universities

Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) along with Representatives Bart Gordon (D-Tenn) and Ralph Hall (R-Texas) are seeking input from the National Academy of Science, Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Engineering on the state of the US research universities. Their letter (pdf) notes:

We are concerned that they are at risk

Good! Glad you've noticed. How can we help, my good Critters?

The request to the Masters of Science was pretty direct.

What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and other could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?

This is a repeat action, the last time these folks issued a similar request it supposedly ended up as the America COMPETES Act.
Now admittedly, I doubt many of my readers are in the NAS, IOM or NAE but what the heck. You might start in on your own Congressional delegation with an email (actually you usually have to use their web-submission) or phone call. Start softening them up now, getting the idea that our Universities are teh BrokenZ!!! onto the agenda, getting them on board with 'Critters Alexander, Mikulski, Gordon and Hall.
Now, getting back to the notion that these Congress folks are directing their request to the Masters of Science... well, I don't know that Professor Bluehair and Dr. Greybeard are going to always hit the mark. I mean, what are they going to say? The system, such as it is, has been totally fantastic for them. Their approach, I guarantee, is going to be "more money please!" and an intent to keep doing more of the same. Perhaps with a few gratuitous slaps at the ever expanding institutional layers of administration at their Universities. Perhaps with a little chin-music devoted to "the future of science". Sure. But you can be assured they will not be suggesting any fundamental changes in the way we do business.
So how about it? If you were to answer the above question in full or in part what would you say?
I would, of course, focus my attentions on the NIH and the NIH-funded research enterprise because that's my dealio. My usual readers can certainly anticipate my answers.
1) Deal seriously with the ever-delayed career arc. It is just plain ridiculous that we've gone from a situation in which the vast majority of PhDs were in permanent (often professorial) jobs within 3 years of the defense to one in which 6+ years of post-doctoral work is required to get a job. NIH is trying to turn this around with their identification of Early Stage Investigators and the K99/R00 award but Congress could boot this even farther down the road via directives to the NIH. Put the carrot of easier funding of newer/younger PIs in front of the Universities and you will see some positive effects. This brings up the related point...
2) Deal seriously with the ever-increasing proportion of soft-money PI/Prof/LabHead jobs. A big part of the career problem is the abandonment of the traditional local University role in creating hard money tenure-track faculty jobs. This affects undergraduate instruction with increasing numbers of student instruction-hours being covered by nonpermanent faculty, typically of low rank. It also affects research careers, as we know. Soft money jobs mean more uncertainty of the career; some talented individuals will opt out. It also has the potential for a degree of conservativeness when it comes to research directions. So how'sa 'bout this? Set some reasonable numbers with respect to proportions of hard money / soft money jobs and put the Uni's under the audit gun to make sure they can't invent new dodges. Then put the entirety of the place's NIH (or federal) funding on the line. They'll snap into line so fast....
3) Support the permanent research scientist career path (especially critical if #2 works) via a new mech that looks something like a K05. Let a scientist be in charge of just the single grant...his or her salary. I think I outlined this before but you could require it to be tied to a parent grant...but any parent grant would do. So there would be an obligation to be working under NIH research funds but the tie to a given PI would be looser.
...what else springs to mind?

16 responses so far

  • Danny O'Rerio says:

    They don't give a shit what we say. Some blowhard politically-connected Harvard dean is going to say what will best benefit him, the rest of us be damned, and that's what the action plan will be.
    I thought this blog was about the reality of science as a profession. I didn't realize we were going to regress to a naive belief that science or (especially) science funding was at its heart rational.
    But as long as we're playing, this is what I'd say...
    To scientists:
    Take a look at the budgetary realities and stop whining that more money should be allocated to NIH and NSF. It. just. ain't. gonna. happen. And it shouldn't. I just heard today about some continuing unbelievable farce at NIH concerning ARRA money. I am pretty cynical, but it blew even my cynical mind. Suffice to say the rich get richer. And science (and common sense) suffers.
    To NIH staff, congress, and the American taxpayer:
    Number one suggestion: Drastically cut indirect costs and cap the percentage of PI salary support. Grant-writing has supplanted science as a career, because science these days is secondary to fundraising at many institutions. This will immediately free up 10-20% of science budgets, and redirect money toward science -- actual science -- where it belongs.
    Number two suggestion: Make 'productivity per dollar' an explicit review criterion for grants. This will shift money toward the most cost-effective people and projects, where it belongs.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Fund research institutions, not just research projects. Long-term stability makes a difference, and reduces the pressure to crank up tuition to even the cash flow.
    Trickle-down education is a lot like trickle-down economics: it's a rationalization for what people were planning to do anyway.

  • juniorprof says:

    I'm with Danny, across the board 50% indirects for all.

  • Alex says:

    Drastically cut indirect costs and cap the percentage of PI salary support.
    I don't claim a deep understanding of research universities, but that would be death for anybody who wants to sustain a research program at a primarily undergraduate institution. We have to have a way to get some of our teaching load bought out with our grants, otherwise we won't have any time for research. Now, one might say that research at places like mine shouldn't be a priority, but it's entirely possible that your next student is writing his or her first paper with me this summer. Do you want that student to write that paper on some badass science, or not?

  • Alex says:

    EDIT: Depending on how drastic of a cut you're talking about, that could be death for research programs at a school like mine.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    I think that if you were talk about these issues like this with congressional critters you would get a sideways look like from a retarded puppy.
    They need to not be concerned with what you want as a scientist, which by the way, simply sounds selfish (even though I want it too!).
    It needs to be about what does the federal government get from research conducted at universities? How transparent is the transmission of the results? What should the states be contributing to research in relation to the feds (this is the real problem, state funding is abysmal). Are there too many Ph.D.s in certain areas? Should we on a 5 year basis maybe, assess the needs for researchers in specific fields and push for training and funding in those areas and limit others?
    The esoterica of funding mechanisms and teaching loads are going to be off the radar of fact finding panels.
    However, I also agree that there should be a limit on how much the feds can cover of a salary. Universities need to provide the remainder from state or endowed funds. It is the only way to start weaning universities off their pathological dependency federal salary dollars. It is this system which has made public MRUs have hardly any support from their states and makes everyone's jobs that much "softer" in terms of certainty of salaries....

  • Danny O'Rerio says:

    I hear ya, Feelgood. And I agree. But since the academies, being committees, are likely only going to come up with a bunch of platitudes and vague goals, I figured we might as well offer specifics. That Harvard dean will, because he knows that specifics get implemented. Platitudes don't.
    And who knows, maybe a NAS member does actually check in here now & then. Or will, if this discussion is worth their time. It's a surprisingly small world.

  • bsci says:

    However, I also agree that there should be a limit on how much the feds can cover of a salary.
    The trouble with this line of thought is, given the amount of money universities, states, and private donors have to support research faculty, this would significantly decrease the total number of faculty (and scientist supported by universities rather than corporations) in the nation. In the long-term, this might be good thing, but if it's typically 6+ years from PhD to faculty now, I'd hate to see what it would be with much fewer faculty openings while established soft money faculty are scrambling for non-federal salary support.

  • Gingerale says:

    I agree with Alex (comment #s 4 & 5).
    Additionally: Create infrastructure to support midcareer people who have been out of the funding stream 3+ or 5+ years but have talent, expertise, etc. to contribute to production of knowledge. We can't afford to waste what they've got to offer. We need to get them back on board.

  • Treefish says:

    I think the top three priorities are to:
    (1) Find better ways to mate basic science with disease-related research. Often, the great 'basic' scientists are too busy figuring out/discovering really cool things, and have little/no time to ponder how their new findings might provide insight into curing/ameliorating diseases, or at least help provide a deeper understanding of said disease (e.g., Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, etc.). Such a directive or mission will also foster collaboration among scientists at a single MRU or at least among regionally-close MRUs.
    (2) Provide a fast-track option for MRUs for their younger researchers, where the stars either get early tenure which includes a larger portion of MRU resources (e.g., lab space); or, provide a TENURED Assistant Professor slot, where some scientists have tenure at the start of their appointment. I think this will be necessary as the baby-boomers emeritize, and the vacuole of scientists is filled with some people who had been previously on a track of 'permanent post doc.' This will also provide more hope in the future for the younger scientists, since they won't hear as many stories of the crazed Asst Prof stressing the lab out with worries about the future...within limits, because you still have to produce to make it to the next step-- ("The future, young man, is headed straight for your fucking face!", said the Asst Prof, who smelled of cigarettes and coffee. His eyes glistened like a cold red pepper in the hot, humid midwestern summer air. His lab now had 2 years to get 7 years worth of publications, and the stress was deflating all hope he had in the future like a small hole at the base of a helium-filled birthday balloon.). As a counterexample, the MRU Med School that I am currently at just announced that they are eliminating early tenure for Assistant Professors. You should have heard the discussion in the hallways and elevators in the days following! If an Asst Prof at my MRU hits it big, he/she is likely to skip town and go to a more supportive place that identifies, nurtures, and rewards successful young investigators.
    And (3) Encourage more R01-level collaborations, similar to PPGs, but where each investigator is the PI, rather than having a 'head' manager for a PPG. This will encourage more collaboration among researchers, since the R01-type PPG will hold as much weight as an individual R01. Plus, it will encourage younger investigators to go in on a R01-PPG with the older more established scientists, without having to worry about not getting PI credit. Such an idea also goes right into the sweet spot of Program Announcements, centered around a specific top or idea at a particular institute/center (e.g., NIMH, NINDS, etc.).
    Just my thoughts, and I fear that CPP will respond with a string of 'HAHAHAHAHAs' at my naive notions of policy change (which is often warranted). My premise is that the NIH and MRUs have to deal with two main issues in science: (1) curing disease/improving health with the best science possible; and (2) preparing for the sudden emeritization of many of the older scientists in the next 10 years. Encouraging younger investigators to collaborate WHILE ALSO GIVING THEM R01 PI CREDIT will go a long way toward revamping an ailing system, be it through basic/applied collaborations or young/old ones.

  • Nat says:

    preparing for the sudden emeritization of many of the older scientists in the next 10 years.
    Must....hang....on...a...little...longer. Gonna be a lot of physiology needing doing then anyway, whether it's called physiology or some "systems biology" mumbo jumbo.
    Also, I am loving DM's #3.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Treefish#10-- Where are you getting this sudden bolus of emeriti? The oldest baby boomers will not turn 65 until 2011, and I don't know many faculty who go quietly into that good night (especially when their 401k's are in the hole). Both deadwood and the still-productive are highly incentivized to hang on for as long as they can.
    Mid-range boomers reach 72 in 2024. That's about when I would start to expect some real demographic shifts.

  • becca says:

    2024... I'll be the average age for a getting one's first R01 in 2024. Wooo!
    (*average age NOW... it'll shift upwards again by the time I get there, I'm sure)
    Also, I have a little list of things for our congresscritters (actually, anyone have ideas that would help researchers and help reform the healthcare system? The critter-known-as-Spector was asking for input)?

  • DSKS says:

    "Mid-range boomers reach 72 in 2024. That's about when I would start to expect some real demographic shifts."
    Ha! You poor fool. We will have perfected cryogenic preservation by then, and all the Old Boys will be hanging out in the -80C; their cold hands clenched around the levers of power for eternity... postdocs rendered obsolete by teams of cybernetically enhanced macaques with unparalleled skillz in molecular biology...
    Every time a graduate needs to ask the PI a question, I imagine the scene will unfold much like the interaction between Commander Powell and Talby in Dark Star.

  • Nat says:

    Mid-range boomers reach 72 in 2024. That's about when I would start to expect some real demographic shifts.
    This is precisely why we should keep NIH funding aimed straight at basic research. How the heck else are we gonna clear the decks of Professor Bluehair and Dr. Graybeard?

  • MadScientist says:

    Well said. The current system sucks and blows all at once. Due to budget limitations, dependency on grants, turn-around time for grant decisions and funding, etc, research groups tend to take up new post-grads, pay relatively little, suck the life out of them, then throw them out the door. Only a very small percentage of people have the opportunity to work on a problem long enough to achieve any valuable outcome.
    This certainly isn't a simple problem to solve though - everyone will be asking for money and it will be difficult to decide who deserves funding. On top of that you have all the usual deadwood which, unfortunately, are not necessarily easy to get rid of - the vast majority of people would have had their experiences with incompetent technicians, incompetent researchers, incompetent managers etc. It often seems that the deadwood manage to hang around and the good people get fed up and walk away.

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