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ARE THERE TOO MANY FACULTY SCIENTISTS IN THE UNITED STATES?  PART II: CONSEQUENCES OF THE IMBALANCE PROBLEM! 

 

Too much of a good thing can lead to big problems! (http://dr-monsrs .net)
Too much of a good thing can lead to big problems! (http://dr-monsrs .net)

 

The features and causes of a large imbalance between the number of doctoral scientists researching at academic institutions in the US and the amount of dollars available to support their research studies were described in Part I.  Part II now examines the consequences of the imbalance problem for science and society.  Those who have not yet read Part I should do so before starting Part II!

Overview: consequences of the imbalance problem for science and research! 

The imbalance problem has bad consequences for science, research, and scientists in academia (universities, medical schools, research institutes).  It results in: (1) hyper-competition for research grants, (2) a distorted atmosphere for conducting research, and (3) changing the nature of being a professional scientist in academia.

All modern academic scientists participate in a mad scramble to get one or more research grants.  That intense struggle constitutes a hyper-competition for research funding (see “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants”) which is directly caused by the imbalance problem.  Getting and renewing research grants now is a life or death matter for professional faculty scientists.  It is hard to believe but true that many faculty scientists today spend more time composing and word processing research grant applications than they do conducting research experiments in their lab!

In turn, this hyper-competition poisons the entire atmosphere for conducting research studies in academia.  This distorted milieu diminishes or prevents working in collaboration with other faculty scientists on research studies, because everyone fed by the research grant system is competing with everybody else for financial support.  A chemistry scientist studying a new type of battery not only competes with all other chemistry scientists, but also struggles for funding against astronomers, clinical researchers, and plant cell biologists.  Any faculty scientist applying for research support from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health might not get awarded a research grant because one other faculty scientist was lucky and did get funded.  That solid fact is deadly for collaboration in research!

The entire nature of being a faculty scientist at modern academia has changed!  Faculty scientists now actually are businessmen and businesswomen, since they are working to make money for their employer.  Scientific research now is only a good means for universities to increase their financial profits via getting more research grant money.  This change supports accusations that research is for sale and modern science now is dead (see “Science has been Murdered in the United States, as Proclaimed by Kevin Ryan and Paul Craig Roberts!”).  Career progress by faculty scientists formerly was evaluated by their ability to make important research discoveries and deliver quality teaching to students.  Instead, it now depends mostly on success in getting and maintaining external research funding.  Faculty scientists now are judged by counting numbers of abstracts presented at science meetings, collaborations developed, graduate students trained, invited seminars presented, pages published, postdocs mentored, research grant dollars acquired, etc.  Judgments on quality of research output are sadly missing from all that counting!

Overview: Consequences of the imbalance problem for the general public!  

The imbalance problem also has negative consequences for society.  Those result in: (1) universities now are just profit-seeking businesses, (2) scientists in academia now chase  research grants instead of new discoveries, (3) the educational mission of universities now is quite distorted.

At the top of any list of bad consequences for the US public is the conversion of universities into businesses where money is everything.  Formerly, universities were stable sites for scholars and scientists to investigate everything from art history to zoology, and to teach advanced courses.  The imbalance problem changes both public and private universities into a business, thereby distorting their traditional purposes; academic research now is similar to industrial research!.  For society, these changes mean that universities now have quite different functions than formerly.  An excellent and outspoken essay by Dr. Michele Pagano (NYU School of Medicine), “Don’t Run Biomedical Science as a Business”, recently dealt with this important issue; please don’t hesitate to read it!

Being a professional scientist researching in academia has been dramatically changed.  Increasingly, open science faculty positions are filled by doctoral scientists receiving a “soft-money salary” (i.e., their salary comes exclusively from their research grants).  Although such employees can produce significant research findings, they usually don’t participate in teaching.  Modern universities are very happy to hire faculty with soft-money salaries because that maneuver magically both decreases their expenses and increases their income (see “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”).  Getting more profits now is much more important to modern universities than is discovering new knowledge or providing high quality advanced education.

The traditional educational mission of universities now is badly distorted.  Standards for courses in science often are lowered, meaning all students pass so long as they pay their tuition fees; this fits nicely into the new identity of universities as profit-seeking businesses where money is everything.  It seems likely that soon faculty scientists holding research grants will not have to teach any courses; that role will be taken over by full-time teachers.  Then, members of the science faculty will be divided into either soft-money researchers or full-time teachers, and few will do both activities.  Both groups will provide income to their employer from research grants or tuition fees.

Concluding remarks for Part II! 

The nature of science in academia is distorted and degraded by the imbalance problem.  The policies and practices of the research grant system and of modern academic institutions ultimately have bad effects on research progress and on advanced education in the US.  The research grant system and universities both downplay basic research studies since applied research leads to more patents and more visible new commercial products.  Current pressure on faculty scientists to focus on applied research is very short-sighted because all new commercial products and processes are preceded by purely basic research; limiting basic research now will diminish applied research later.

Although modern universities and the current research grant system both love the imbalance problem, its negative consequences will take their toll on academia, education, faculty scientists, science, and the public.  It seems obvious that this imbalance must be rectified!  Continuing to increase the number of new doctoral scientists every  year beyond whatever can be supported by the present research support budget is easy to do, but seems very immoral to me.

Decreasing the number of scientists, but keeping the present dollars budgeted for issuance of research grants, will reduce the imbalance problem and decrease all its negative consequences.  A proposal for how to do that will be presented in the following Part III.

 

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ARE THERE TOO MANY FACULTY SCIENTISTS IN THE UNITED STATES?  PART I: CAUSATION OF THE IMBALANCE PROBLEM! 

 

Too much of a good thing can lead to big problems! (http://dr-monsrs .net)
Too much of a good thing can lead to big problems!  (http://dr-monsrs .net)

 

Some people will readily say that there could not possibly be too many scientists until all diseases are conquered, free energy is widely available, a surplus of food eliminates hunger worldwide, and new computer systems function to keep everyone constructively busy while robots do all the physical work!  I disagree with that vision of utopia, since the presence of too many doctoral scientists right now in 2018 creates some important issues!  The very foremost problem for research in academia (i.e., universities, medical schools, research institutes) is that the number of scientists now grossly exceeds the amount of dollars available to pay for their investigations.  That resulting quagmire is designated as “the imbalance problem”!

My examination of the imbalance problem is divided into 3 parts.  Part I provides background and identifies the several causes for there now being too many scientists researching in academia.  Part II looks at the main consequences for science and society of this glut.  Part III proposes how the number of scientists can be reduced to rectify this worsening problem.

How many scientists are working here? 

The latest figures from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) show that there were a grand total of 6.9 million scientists and engineers employed at all levels in academia and industries during 2016 [1].  The CRS data also indicates that the total number of scientists increased every year for 2012-2016 [1].  The annual additions are due to both (1) new doctorates, and (2) new immigrant scientists coming to the US to work on research.

How much of an imbalance is there? 

Are the many billions of dollars furnished by commercial businesses for industrial research, and by governmental granting agencies for research studies in academia, sufficient to support the costs for all worthy research proposals by professional scientists?  The answer is “yes!” for industry, but is “no!” for academia since the largest federal agency funding research in academia, the National Institutes of Health, was able to award money to only about 19-20% of their applications for a research grant in FY2016 [2]!  To increase the number of researchers being supported, some grants now provide only partial funding.

What do academic scientists do if they don’t have a research grant? 

Faculty scientists losing research grant support are in a crisis situation, so all submit multiple applications to try to regain financial support.  If unsuccessful, some switch into full-time teaching and/or administrative activities; they must forget about conducting studies after spending many years being educated and trained to do scientific research.  Others continue researching but either shift their topical interest and join a large well-funded research group, or move into an industrial research job.  A smaller number finds new employment not involving laboratory work.  Senior unfunded scientists often take early retirement.

What causes the imbalance problem?  What drives this situation to continue?    

The cause of the imbalance problem is either too many scientists or too few dollars.  The number of scientists increases every time a graduate student in science receives their doctorate, or a foreign doctoral scientist moves here and finds employment to conduct research.  On the other hand, the number of dollars available for research support usually has only a small annual increase.  Although every year there are anguished emotional cries for Congress to appropriate a much greater amount of money to support research, such common ideas for solving the imbalance problem are impractical and simply do not work.

There are 3 main stimuli driving the imbalance problem to be ongoing.  (1) Modern universities have changed into businesses where profits are all important, so their science faculty now are businessmen and businesswomen.  The chief function of faculty scientists now is to get research grants, not to advance scientific knowledge and teach science.  The more science faculty that universities can hire, the more research grants they can gather, thus raising their business profits; for a greater understanding about science and money at modern universities, see “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”.

(2) The current research grant system never has sufficient money to support all research projects proposed by faculty scientists.  In addition, its policies and practices waste substantial funds for non-research purposes (i.e., payment for the indirect costs of conducting research), encourage wastage by research grant recipients (i.e., all dollars awarded must be spent during the grant period), and do not permit banking of any unspent funds (i.e., thereby discouraging being thrifty).

(3) The working atmosphere for professional researchers in academia has changed greatly so there now is less freedom to choose a research subject.  Applied research is much favored over any basic research studies both by academic institutions and the federal granting agencies.  Faculty scientists must recognize that their employer chiefly values the money coming in from their research grants, and not their research discoveries; this completely changes their professional identity.

Do scientists researching in industry face the same imbalance problem?  No!   

Since industrial research is supported internally from business profits, it is self-funded.  This automatically avoids the imbalance problem prominently found in modern academia.  If there is not enough money in industry to conduct a valuable new applied research study, then either it does not get started or some lower priority study at the same company gets cancelled so funds become available for the new investigation.

Concluding remarks for Part I! 

Very many people in the US believe that the imbalance problem should be resolved simply by budgeting much more money for science (e.g., “Instead of spending billions on the military, let’s shift all those dollars into research!”).  Due to the Malthusian growth in the number of scientists, the number of dollars needed to remedy the imbalance problem gets larger every year.  Thus, if the imbalance problem was  fully resolved by adding a gigantic pile of additional money, then the very next year this imbalance problem would reappear!  Adding an enormous pile of dollars for support of scientific research in academia is likely to have bad effects on their research and scientists (see “Huge Additional Money for Research Will Be Bad for Universities and Their Science!” ).

The imbalance between the number of faculty scientists and the amount of money available to support their research studies unfortunately is an ongoing problem and has very undesired effects.  These consequences will be explained and discussed in the following Part II of this series.

References —

[1]  Sargent, J.F., Jr., 2017.  The U. S.Science and Research Workforce: Recent, Current, and Projected Employment, Wages, and Unemployment.  Congressional Research Service.  Available at: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43061.pdf .

[2]  NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT), 2017.  NIH Funding Facts.  Office of Extramural Research, National Institutes of Health.  Available at  https://report.nih.gov/fundingfacts/fundingfacts.aspx .

 

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