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?