Cover of the 2007 autobiography by James E. Stowers with Jack Jonathan. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, and available from many booksellers on the internet. (http://dr-monsrs.net)
The life of a major benefactor to biomedical research, James E. Stowers, Jr. (1924-2014), was briefly introduced in the previous article (see: “Part I” ). I have conjectured there that Jim Stowers must have understood exactly what are the very biggest problems and impediments for research in modern universities. The Stowers Institute for Medical Research (see: http://www.stowers.org/ ) precludes those destructive problems and represents a new model to better organize the funding and operations of scientific research at universities. Part II now examines in more detail the differences between research centers at universities and the Stowers Institute. I particularly hope that science faculty and administrators at universities will learn about and discuss this new model.
Major differences for science operations between universities and the Stowers Institute.
The organization of financial support for scientific research at the Stowers Institute differs dramatically from that at universities in the US. Universities now view science and research only as a business enterprise that is a good means to increase their financial income (i.e., from research grant awards). This very widespread policy is so counterproductive for research progress that some even have concluded that university science must be dying (e.g., see: “Could Science and Research now be Dying?” and “Science has been Murdered in the United States, as Proclaimed by Kevin Ryan and Paul Craig Roberts” ). Below are given the chief reasons why universities are so extensively different from the Stowers Institute.
The number one reason why science in academia is so very unlike that at the Stowers Institute is that universities directly insist that faculty scientists rent laboratory space and support all expenses for their investigations by acquiring research grants. For universities, faculty scientists now are only a means to the end of increasing their profits (see: “Money now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” ); the science faculty presently is forced to spend too much time and emotional energy on trying to acquire more research grant awards, instead of actually doing experiments to produce more new results. The Stowers Institute replaces research grants by the very large endowment from Jim Stowers and his wife, Virginia; this endowment is purposefully arranged to continue generating new funds that will be used for future research expenses.
The second reason is that advances in basic research now are downplayed by the funding agencies and by universities, due to its greater distance from generating new products and financial rewards. Universities and the research grant system give much emphasis to applied research and commercial involvements, since those produce income more readily. The Stowers Institute specifically targets basic research, which is the forerunner for all applied research.
A third reason is that the research grant system does not provide much direct support for experimental projects needing 10-20 years to complete. The most significant questions for research are very large and complex, so answering them simply cannot be accomplished with only the usual 3-5 years of supported research study; getting a research grant renewed always is uncertain, even for famous faculty scientists. This time limitation discourages scientists from studying the most important research questions. At the Stowers Institute, projects on large research questions are able to be undertaken.
The fourth reason is that the Stowers Institute employs research scientists using contract renewals instead of the traditional tenure system found in universities. Nowadays, the main way to get tenured in university science departments is to be successful at acquiring research grants; the tenure system mostly counts dollars and differs greatly from the ongoing evaluation of research quality utilized at the Stowers Institute. Thus, universities actually are rewarding their science faculty for business skills rather than rewarding them for research breakthroughs and science progress.
A fifth reason is that the intellectual atmosphere at the Stowers Institute is much freer and more encouraging of creativity, curiosity, innovation, and interdisciplinary studies than is found at modern universities. Business is not the endpoint of science; at the Stowers Institute, the openly sought endpoint is research excellence.
What are the effects of these differences upon science and research?
For today’s universities, science is just a business and their faculty scientists are businessmen and businesswomen. Their pursuit of money fundamentally changes and distorts the true aim of scientific research. The chief target of science faculty is no longer to discover new knowledge and increase understanding. Instead, daily life for many university scientists involves the hyper-competition for research grants, which wastes both time and money, and, makes it very difficult to trust any fellow faculty scientists for advice and collaborations (see: “All about Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ). Accordingly, science at universities now is distorted, degenerated, and perverted; this extensive decay subverts science and research at universities.
Turning university research into a commercial activity distorts the traditional aims of science, and increases the corruption of scientists there (see: “Why is It so very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ). Basic research remains as important as it always has been, and should not be repressed in favor of applied research. The Stowers Institute recognizes these values and succeeds in pursuing excellence in biomedical science; its success seems to be directly due to the philosophy and organization instituted by its founder and directors.
The policies and organization that Jim Stowers initiated clearly go against all the serious problems for science at universities. His distinctive design emphasizes using and encouraging creativity, exploration of new ideas by innovative research, vigorous collaborations, and much hard work; this atmosphere aims to result in research breakthroughs and encourages new concepts in basic science. Jim Stowers and co-organizers clearly have shown how this idealistic atmosphere can be accomplished in today’s world. It is noteworthy that some large pharmaceutical firms endow their own research institutes quite similarly to what has been done for the Stowers Institute.
Is this huge difference only a question of money?
Of course, many will say that the donation of a billion dollars would let their university activate enlightened policies for its science. I disagree, and believe that money alone will not remedy the negative aspects of current university science! Also needed are wholesale changes in administrative policies, independent leadership, organization, philosophy, working atmosphere, and, much less dedication to commercialization. All of these are essential! Although making these changes would rescue university science from its present debilitation, it seems unlikely that such will be undertaken.
Any excuse by universities that they do not have such large funds does not explain why the huge endowments already in-hand at some universities are not spent for the support of scientific research and researchers in a manner analogous to the Stowers Institute. Instead, these very large funds are used to try to further increase the financial income and profits of academic institutions (e.g., all sorts of entertaining amusements on and off campus, flashy brochures and other publicity, programs for visiting prospective students and parents, public courses and lectures, travel programs, solicitation of donations, sports activities and athletic contests, television specials, etc.).
Why cannot university science departments mimic the model of the Stowers Institute, and thereby free themselves from their major problems?
If it is not only a question of money, then there must be something else that impedes adopting the Stowers Institute as a model for conducting good scientific research. Opinions for identifying this hidden factor will differ, but I see the actual cause as being the commercialization of science at universities (see: “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” ). This commercialization changes the whole nature of academic science and research. The research grant system was intended to enable scientific research, not to change and distort it. Universities were supposed to produce new knowledge and concepts, to teach, and to investigate the truth, not to become financial centers. All these ideals have changed so greatly at universities that good scientific research now is hindered and foundering. The actual priorities are quite different from the needed priorities; until these are changed, faculty scientists cannot hope to escape from their enslavement by the research grant system.
The Stowers Institute for Medical Research stands as a very successful new model for promoting research advances and science progress. The big difference to science that Jim and Virginia Stowers have made in the US can and should be copied by universities to reorganize and better foster their high quality research. This large change in priorities and operations need not be done all at once (i.e., simultaneously for all science departments); it could start with one science department and then expand to others over a 10-year period. The payoff to universities for removing the restrictions and distortions imposed by viewing scientific research only as a commercial business enterprise, will be a substantial elevation of the quality and vigor of their science activities, and, a more reliable future input of income.
The success of the Stowers Institute dramatically proves that science does not need to be harnessed and hobbled by the research grant system! Bypassing the grave current problems at universities stemming from the research grant system will reduce or remove the vicious hyper-competition for research grant awards that badly distorts their science, and will increase job satisfaction for the science faculty. The benefits shown by this new model give some hope that university science need not continue to decay and degenerate until it actually dies (see: “Could Science and Research now be Dying?” ).
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