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WHY ARE UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS INCREASINGLY UPSET WITH THEIR JOB? PART II.

 

Why is quality researching and teaching now so problematic for university scientists?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Why is quality researching and teaching now so problematic for university scientists? (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Part I of this essay identifies the chief causes and consequences for the increasing dismay and dissatisfaction of scientists working in universities for researching and/or teaching (see “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with their Job?  Part I”).  Part II now discusses the effects of this condition upon the conduct of experimental research and science education in universities; further, I explain what can be done to deal with this current issue.

What do the changes in Part I mean for scientific research and science teaching in universities? 

The whole nature of science and research at universities recently has changed.  The altered and decreased standards for quality performance in research and teaching means that a decline is inevitable in both activities.  Rather than being a university scientist, members of the science faculty now are forced to become businessmen and businesswomen.  Instead of working at the laboratory bench, far too many successful university scientists become managers doing paperwork while sitting at a desk in an office, but never entering their laboratory.  Acquisition of more and more research grant dollars now is their chief goal, instead of trying to discover more new truths and create valid new concepts through research experiments.

When doctoral research scientists become transformed into business managers, they are then expected to perform activities that all their many years of advanced education and training have not prepared them for (e.g., acquiring money, adjusting experimental data to fit what is wanted, bargaining, composing research grant proposals based only on what is most likely to be funded, handling investments and charting profit margins, interacting with other scientists only as either competitors or collaborators, etc.).  I know of no evidence that being good or clever at making money in business is more than very loosely related to being good or clever at doing research experiments; these two sets of skills and capabilities seem to me to be separate and unrelated.

Science and scientists at universities have been modified to such an extent that activities, performance, and advancement now are being evaluated with very different criteria than were used only a few decades ago.   Even science education is negatively affected, because quality standards for teaching are lowered, students are not taught to think independently and to ask meaningful questions, the development of understanding by students is not fostered, etc.; often, all of these are decreased or even negated.  University scientists concentrating on teaching activities now are evaluated mainly on the basis of their popularity with students, instead of being evaluated for educational quality.  I will never forget the time I was very shocked when a senior faculty teacher once confided to me that he believed his own required first-year medical school course had degenerated into something suitable for high school students.

The overall effect of the enlarging dissatisfaction by science faculty is a progressive decrease in the quality of both researching and teaching.  The activities of professional scientists at universities now are degraded due to the changes and consequences enumerated in Part I (see “Why are University Scientists Increasingly Upset with their Job?  Part I”).

Can university research and science teaching be rescued? 

What should be done to resolve the current predicament of university scientists?  Finding effective solutions for these vexing academic problems certainly is not easy, particularly because academia historically always has been very slow to change anything even when it is totally obvious that changes are badly needed.  Possible solutions could be sought either by (1) rectifying the general policies and practices at modern universities, or by (2) improving the individual situation for each  disgruntled and demoralized scientist.  Since I regretfully do not see how the first possibility can be accomplished at the present time, I will consider here only the second possibility.

Why do I feel that university policies and practices cannot be reformed now?  Universities generally are very happy with exactly the same changes that upset their science faculty, since those maneuvers have significantly elevated the financial position of these institutions (see “Three Money Cycles Support Scientific Research”).  Any large and comprehensive solution for the problems in academia probably must await strong reform measures that can replace the ongoing commercialization of doing research in universities with some modern version of its traditional aims of finding new truth, creating valid new concepts, and, developing new ideas and new technology.  Similarly, in all levels of teaching science in universities, changes that can improve the present decayed educational system seem unlikely until there will be removal of such unrealistic philosophies as “truth is relative”, “all children are equal”, “education should be made easier, so students can learn quicker”, and, “that’s good enough”.  In my view, all such anti-education liberal proclamations really are only excuses for failure to do effective teaching.

What can actually be done to improve job satisfaction for individual faculty scientists? 

My suggestions here are directed towards practical considerations.  Because I believe that the policies for scientific research in universities are very unlikely to be changed or improved for a long time, I suggest that the best approach for individuals is to move out of the way of whatever causes their dissatisfaction.  This entails evaluating the nature of their problematic situation and the amount of change they believe is needed.  Many will find that this ultimately boils down to asking oneself whether it is time to find a better place to work.  I do indeed know personally that this is never an easy question, and that moving usually is very disruptive for the career of any academic scientist.  However, it should be recognized by all the upset university scientists that there now are an increasing number of good employment opportunities for scientists that are quite different from working in traditional roles at universities.  One now can conduct research experiments at the laboratory bench outside universities, or can perform science-related work completely outside research laboratories.  I already have discussed a number of these non-traditional opportunities in recent articles primarily aimed to inform graduate students and Postdocs (see “Other Jobs for Scientists, Parts I, II, and III”).

Dissatisfied university scientists who remain very enthusiastic about continuing to do lab research should seriously look at what is available in industrial research and development centers, and in government laboratories.  Much valuable information about these possibilities can be obtained by directly talking to doctoral scientists now working in these other environments, and personally asking them what they see as being serious local job problems.

Dissatisfied science faculty who still are very committed and enthusiastic about continuing to teach science should try to find a new employer, either at other universities or at non-university sites, where their viewpoints about what constitutes excellent education are shared with the other teachers and are actually put into practice (i.e., lip-service is not enough!).  With the recent development of digital education outlets, educational video programs, non-university course offerings, personal education coaches, private educational organizations, etc., there now are an increasing variety and number of employment opportunities for good science teachers to do new things.

Concluding Remarks for Part II

The increasing levels of job dissatisfaction amongst university faculty researchers and science teachers stem from the recent large shifts in (1) professional identity, (2) job aims and duties, (3) standards for job performance evaluations, (4) career expectations, and, (5) commercialization of academic research and teaching.  These modern changes largely run against what most practicing academic scientists were taught in graduate school, and directly give rise to increasing levels of job frustration and dismay.  The main message here is that these changes also act to decrease the quality of both scientific research and science teaching.  It is nationally important that good solutions to this quagmire must be developed.  It is up to each individual scientist to find a good environment for doing quality research and quality teaching.  The increased variety of job opportunities now available for scientists make non-traditional solutions to this important problem a realistic possibility.

Conclusions for Both Parts I and II

University scientists are increasingly upset with their job due to wholesale changes in many different aspects of researching and teaching.  Science at universities now is being degraded, and the professional roles of faculty scientists increasingly are distorted.  This problem is not some isolated small esoteric issue, but rather involves the purpose of science and research, and, the objective of becoming a doctoral scientist.  These very destructive changes in universities constitute a large portion of the reasons why I have come to believe that science itself now is dying (see my recent article in the Big Problems category on “Could Science and Research now be Dying?”).

 

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WHY ARE UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS INCREASINGLY UPSET WITH THEIR JOB? PART I.

 

Why is quality researching and teaching so problematic for university scientists?  (dr-monsrs.net)
Why is quality researching and teaching now so problematic for university scientists? (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

The traditional work for doctoral scientists employed as faculty at universities is laboratory research and classroom teaching.  All that now has changed greatly.  Readers who are not scientists should first learn about the actual job activities of university scientists (see “What do University Scientists Really do in their Daily Work?”); that will greatly aid in understanding this essay.  A surprising number of faculty scientists performing research studies now find that they are frustrated, dismayed, and increasingly dissatisfied with their job activities.  Even senior scientists mostly working in classroom teaching now feel that they get less and less professional satisfaction for trying to do a good job with science education in undergraduate, graduate, and medical school courses.

My examination of this growing problem in modern universities is divided into 2 parts.  The first presents the causes of why the science faculty are so upset, and examines the unfortunate consequences.  The second part will detail how these recent changes impact on science and scientists, and discusses what can be done to alleviate this distressing condition for university scientists.

What is causing job dissatisfaction amongst university scientists? 

From my own experiences during over 35 years of faculty work at several universities, and from talking to many different faculty members at other academic institutions, I know that many university scientists feel that they now are not readily able to do research as they were trained to do.  Their identity as scientists is constantly challenged by the changed job goals, hyper-competition for research grants that takes them away from the lab bench, and, pressures to accept or ignore professional dishonesty.  They also unexpectedly find that they have been incompletely educated, since their graduate courses and long training included no formal instruction on how to be successful as a business executive, financial jockey, administrative manager, and salesperson, while still officially being a professional scientist at work on researching and teaching.  Accordingly, their daily life as modern university faculty gets to be quite problematic (see earlier articles on “The Life of Modern Scientists is an Endless Series of Deadlines” and “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so very Hectic?”).

There are 5 chief causes for this unfortunate dissatisfaction in academic science

(1) Traditional evaluation of quality performance in research has been replaced by counting dollars acquired from research grants.  This changes the entire nature of university research.

(2) Traditional evaluation of quality performance in teaching now has been replaced by measuring popularity of teachers and courses with the enrolled students .  This changes the entire nature of university teaching.

(3) Doing significant experimental research has only a strictly secondary importance since the main job of the science faculty now is to increase the financial profits of their university employer (see  “What is the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”).  This changes the very nature of being a science faculty member at modern universities.

(4) Science faculty members doing grant-suppported research are only renting their laboratory.  Unless they win a Nobel Prize there are no long-term leases of research laboratories, even for tenured professors.  This necessarily changes the nature of anyone’s career as a university research scientist.

(5) Individual curiosity, creativity, and interests are increasingly submerged into mechanical types of research activities requiring little individual initiative or self-determination, particularly when doctoral researchers come to work as technicians inside large groups (see my recent article on “Individual Work Versus Group Efforts in  Scientific Research”).  Research groups commonly involve research managers, group-think in tightly knit team projects, and daily attention to financial targets for research grant awards.  This changes the nature of any research career at universities.

Although these causes and their resulting consequences seem very obvious to me, readers should be aware that they are disputed or even denied by academic officials and some other scientists.  It is my belief that the present decrease in the quality of research and science teaching that results from faculty dissatisfaction is a serious national problem that someday will become very obvious for all to see.

What are the consequences for university scientists? 

Let us briefly look at the main consequences coming from each of the 5 major causes for current faculty dissatisfaction listed above.

(1)  Making research at universities into a business activity brings all kinds of secondary problems from the world of modern commerce into research laboratories (e.g., corruption, deceit, graft, greed, mercantilism, vicious competition, etc.).  These necessarily decrease science integrity (see my earlier article on “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?”), and thereby subvert trust in research, science, and scientists.

(2)  When popularity with students becomes the goal of science courses in universities, then teachers start bringing pizza and bowls of punch into the classroom in order to raise their chances for winning a “teacher of the year” award.  Concomitantly, standards are lowered or discarded as education becomes sidetracked from its true purpose.  Popularity and excellence in teaching simply are not synonymous (see my recent article on “A Large Problem in Science Education: Memorization is not Enough, and is Not the Same as Understanding”.

(3)  If finding new truths is no longer the chief aim of scientific research then the standards for evaluating what is true will change and decay (see “How do we Know What is  True?”).  Dollars cannot be any valid measure of what is true.

(4)  Sooner or later, all science faculty researching in university laboratories will encounter the problem of not getting an application for research grant renewal approved and funded.  Even when they have previously merited several grant renewals, such a rejection means that they soon are pushed out of their laboratory.  University labs are only leased, and all space assignments therefore are temporary; if the rent is not paid by a research grant, then occupancy ends.  This necessarily means that laboratory research at universities must be only some temporary work, rather than an ongoing career activity.

(5)  Working as a businessperson, chief manager, executive officer, financial administrator, research director, etc., is very different from being a professional researcher and/or teacher at a university.  The mentality, integrity, and accountability in these two sorts of employment are very different.  Universities formerly have valued and encouraged creativity, curiosity, debate, and individualism much more than these are utilized or accepted in businesses where money determines everything (see article on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research”).  These qualities now have been changed into requirements for conformity to executive authority, group-think, subordination of curiosity and creativity, and, willingness to never ever ask any questions.

Concluding Remarks for Part I

The chief causes and consequences of the growing dissatisfaction of university science faculty with their job now can be clearly recognized. Universities believe this entire situation is wonderful  because their financial situation now is much improved.  The end results of putting up with these unannounced changes are that members of the science faculty are sidetracked from traditional research, forced to work at activities they have not been trained to do, spend most of their time working on research grant applications, and, are involved in a business career rather than in science.  Scientific research in academia now has become increasingly commercialized (see my earlier essay on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science?”).  Most science faculty become very surprised with how different their daily life actually is from what they had expected in graduate school.  It is hard to conclude anything more striking from this essay than that science itself has been changed.

In summary, science faculty working at modern universities on research and/or teaching are increasingly frustrated and upset because their planned career is diverted, their integrity is challenged, their curiosity and creativity are squelched, their research is sidetracked into business aims, and their long education is made to seem quite incomplete.  No wonder they are so upset!!  Part II will discuss the effects these changes have upon researching and teaching, and, will give my views about what realistically can be done to deal with this modern academic problem.

 

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MONEY NOW IS EVERYTHING IN SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AT UNIVERSITIES

All Is Money in University Science  (dr-monsrs.net)
All  Is  Money  in  University  Science     (dr-monsrs.net)

            Scientific research in recent times certainly is very costly (see my earlier post on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Money & Grants category).  Everything in a university research laboratory is quite expensive and costs keep rising each year.  Even such common inexpensive items as paper towels, phone calls, xerographic copies, and keys to lab rooms need to be paid for at many universities.  To handle all these expenses, faculty scientists must apply for a research grant, obtain an award, and then work hard to later get it renewed.  Unless a faculty member is working at a small undergraduate college, it simply is not possible to conduct research using only internal funds and undergraduate volunteer lab workers.  Without having laboratory co-workers, research comes to a screeching halt whenever the faculty member must be out of the lab while teaching, attending a committee meeting, eating lunch in a cafeteria, or going to see the dentist.  In addition to paying salaries for postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and graduate students, faculty scientists must buy research supplies and equipment, get broken instruments repaired, and pay for many other research expenses (e.g., business travel, costs of publication, use of special research facilities on- and off-campus, etc.).  Thus, to conduct scientific research in a university, it is fundamentally necessary to obtain and maintain external research funding; without a research grant, laboratory research projects in universities now are nearly impossible.

           

            Although the federal government each year thankfully provides many billions of dollars to support experimental studies, the present research grant system in the US is not able to fund all the good proposals submitted by faculty scientists in universities.  Of those overjoyed applicants meriting an award, many receive only part of their requested budget.  The U.S. National Science Foundation, a very large federal agency offering research grants in nearly all branches of science and engineering, reports awarding research funds to only around 28% of the many thousands of investigators applying for research support each year [1]. 

            

            Today, the professional reputation of individual faculty scientists depends mostly on the total number of dollars brought in by their research grant award(s) each year.  It also is true that different universities compare their reputation for quality in education and scholarly prestige primarily on the basis of the annual total amount of external research grant awards generated by their faculty scientists.  Many universities seeking to elevate their financial profits from research grants now urge their science faculty to try to obtain a second or third external award (i.e., for a related or unrelated project); universities also can increase their profits from research grant awards simply by hiring more science faculty. 

            

            Failure to get a research grant renewed is no longer unusual, due to the ever-increasing large number of doctoral scientists vigorously competing for new and renewal funding.  Any such failure means a rapid loss of assigned laboratory space, loss of graduate students working with the faculty member, a diminished professional reputation, and the necessity to henceforth spend all of one’s time trying to get re-funded.  Although non-renewed faculty scientists can continue researching and publishing using supplies at hand, such activity usually declines to some small level within about one year of not being funded.  This unwelcome failure is a disaster that often causes a midcareer crisis (e.g., denial of promotion to tenured rank); having a second research grant does provide some welcome protection in this distressing situation.  

            

            Each and every faculty scientist is competing against each and every other scientist for a cut of the government pie.  While ordinary competition generally has good effects upon human activities, this most prominent of all science faculty efforts is so extensive and generates such high pressures that it must be termed a “hyper-competition”.  The hyper-competition for research grant awards downgrades collegiality, subverts collaborations, and encourages corruption; each of these has very destructive effects on the research enterprise.  Applying for a research grant always is very stressful; for each renewal application (i.e., after 3-5 years of supported research work), one must compete with a larger number of new and renewal applicants than was the case for the previous  application.  Since the consequences of dealing with the research grant system are so very important for the career progress of any faculty scientist, one might wonder why graduate students in modern science are not being required to also receive an MBA degree, in addition to their Ph.D.?  

 

There is an increasing tendency for faculty scientists to form research groups, ranging from 3 to over 100 individuals.  Joining a small research group means that the failure of one group member to get a renewal application funded does not either kill anyone within the group or stop the entire project from continuing.  Giant research groups typically are headed by a king or queen scientist, and can have their own building; these giant groups automatically provide more brains, more hands, more research grant money (from awards to multiple associated individuals), and more lab space than any individual scientist or small group can obtain.  In the large associations, group-think typically can become the usual condition; in such cases, the role of each individual doctoral scientist in the group often devolves into serving only as a highly educated technician, with little need for individual input, creative new ideas, or self-development.  Today’s research scientists who work as individual researchers in academia know they have a fragile status in the hyper-competition for research grants, and usually are extremely careful to select a niche project where there is little likelihood of competing with any giant research group; that mistake would be the kiss-of-death.  Although the federal granting agencies do currently endeavor to give initial awards for 3 years to many newly-appointed science faculty, they also seem to favor the funding of very large research groups; this is readily understandable, since such awards usually provide these agencies with a much firmer likelihood that the proposed studies will be completed on time, and, the anticipated research results will be found and published (i.e., because the proposed experiments actually have already been completed!).  

 

Inevitably, the former prominence of individual research scientists becomes diminished by any policies favoring the formation and operation of very large research groups.  The acknowledged curiosity and creative initiatives of individual researchers have been the main source for new ideas, new concepts, and new directions in science.  Basic research is the necessary progenitor of all the advanced technology arising in the modern world.  Both the granting agencies and the academic institutions should change their priorities and policies so as to increase and encourage, rather than decrease and discourage, the vital activity of individuals (i.e., young basic scientists) who contribute so importantly to research progress.  When basic research is de-emphasized or disfavored, so too is creativity in science also being diminished.

 

             Another negative aspect of the enlarged importance of money for today’s scientific research is the commercialization of experimental studies in modern universities.  Commercialism is widely accepted as the primary driver of research and development within industry; currently, it is being extended and expanded into all university research efforts (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  Basic science thereby is increasingly diminished, and many efforts are being targeted toward some commercial development or industrial goal.  That scenario refuses to recognize the proven history that both applied research and engineering developments almost always follow from one or more preceding very basic experimental studies; those basic investigations typically have no practical usage foreseen at the time of their publication.  Many detailed examples, ranging from the transistor [e.g., 2] to paternity testing based on DNA technology with the polymerase chain reaction [e.g., 3,4], show that although some highly imaginative or theoretical idea for a new device or process might have stimulated much interest, very important commercial products only arise much later after the initial basic results are modified and developed by many applied research and engineering efforts. 

 

            Scientific research at universities now is only a business activity. have seen this perverse situation in person during my own career experiences, and believe that these problems and issues with money and university profits now have changed the very nature of being an academic scientist.  I can only conclude that money today is just about everything for scientific research at modern universities.  This new emphasis creates many secondary problems for science progress and puts many roadblocks in the way of individual research scientists.  The traditional goal of scientific research is to find more new knowledge, not to acquire more and more money.  Counting the number of dollars in research grants cannot be a valid and meaningful measure of the professional status and value of individual faculty scientists.  Readers should know that I am certainly not the only scientist to state all these views with dismay (e.g., A. Kuszewski, 2010.  What happened to creativity in science?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.science20.com/print/72577 ). 

 

[1]   National Science Foundation, 2013.  About funding.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.nsf.gov/funding/aboutfunding.jsp . 

[2]   Mullis, K.B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf/ .

[3]  Universal Genetics DNA Testing Laboratory, 2013.  Paternity DNA test.  Available on the

internet at: http://www.dnatestingforpaternity.com/paternity-test.html .

[4]   Ingenetix, 2013.  Paternity testing.  Available on the internet at: 

http://www.ingenetix.com/en/paternaty-testing

 

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