July 2010

Funding Research and Education

 

Although we are facing a funding crisis, divorcing undergraduate education from research will not insure continued innovation and success in the laboratory and the classroom, as some suggest. (Titled "False Choices" in print version.)

 

Money BagIn a recent Nature opinion piece titled “Financial Pain Should Focus Universities,” (1) Diane Auer Jones reminds us that the clock is ticking. The transient bolus of extramural research and development funding generated by federal stimulus programs soon will be a memory. Jones sees a silver lining in this “dark cloud for the U.S. scientific enterprise,” however. She outlines a clear and simple national strategy to insure continued innovation and success both in the laboratory and the classroom — divorce undergraduate education from research.

Under Jones’ plan, competitive research would be concentrated in approximately 100 select institutions. A (competitive) research-null phenotype will be adopted by, or conferred upon, the nation’s remaining 3,500 colleges and universities. Diminished demand for federal grants, she argues, will stabilize National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation pay lines at higher levels, reducing the time spent chasing money and enhancing productivity. Faculty at “teaching-intensive” institutions, on the other hand, would be liberated from the administrative pressure to engage in the quixotic pursuit of scarce grant dollars. Students, she argues, would be the biggest winners as faculty devote their full time and energy to their educational mission.

Given that numerous opinion pieces are published every day, why respond to Jones? First, however shocking Jones’ thesis may be to an informed reader, it possesses the type of appealingly straightforward logic that plays well in the sound bite world of politics and public opinion. Second, Jones’ credentials include stints as a biology professor, NSF program officer, congressional staffer, and assistant secretary for postsecondary education in the Bush administration. Lastly, Jones’ piece appeared in a prestigious and widely read journal. It also was subject to a follow-up piece in a “NewsBlog” for The Scientist with the less nuanced title, “Why Cutting Science Is Good” (2).

Jones raises some valid points, several of which have been the subject of discussion within the scientific community for many years. How do we raise pay lines if every increase in NIH funding elicits more applications? What is the best strategy for funding science and engineering such that both research and education are well served? In the end, however, her central thesis— that research and teaching fundamentally are incompatible— presents us with a false choice based upon several flawed assumptions.

Assumption 1: Participation in extramurally funded research causes educators to lose sight of their mission. Although Jones is correct inasmuch as the intensive demands of research and instruction confront faculty with a difficult balancing act, she dismisses the many positive contributions that active research programs make to an institution’s undergraduate educational mission. Students get the benefit of learning from bona fide practioners of the art whose experiences and expertise remain current and vibrant. The experiential learning opportunities afforded undergraduate students not only enhance their knowledge and skills but also serve as powerful vehicles for informing their subsequent career choices. These benefits have been documented repeatedly in numerous studies on this topic. Moreover, “real world” validation of these scholarly studies can be readily found in the row upon row of job ads listing experience as a prime hiring criterion, even for entry-level positions.

Assumption 2: “If not managed carefully, the research programmes developed to improve the undergraduate experience for a select few students could lead to the devolution of the academic quality for the large majority.” In other words, research is readily dispensable for the student body as a whole because it only impacts a handful of elite undergraduates. Although access to undergraduate research experiences may be limited in some institutions, in general, the prevailing trend has been to expand undergraduate research programs at colleges and universities. Indeed, my own university is about to hire its first director for undergraduate research, whereas the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s 14th annual undergraduate poster session in Anaheim, Calif., drew a record 180 plus presentations. On the other hand, if Jones is correct, why not call for measures that would make such experiences available to greater numbers of students, rather than curtail them entirely?

Assumption 3: Innovation and creativity can be “managed.” This is a recurring theme amongst advocates of big science, of running universities according to business models, etc. I do not pretend to posses the ultimate answer to this longstanding debate. I would note, however, that for every example of a successful big science project, such as the Human Genome Project, the Manhattan Project and the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo moon program, there are manifold examples of the genius of the individual: both scientist and nonscientist. Each has his or her own place, and the unbroken record of success generated by the somewhat eclectic approach of the past several decades suggests that people— individuals, partners, groups and consortia— are the key to discovery, not some administrative philosophy or organizational regimentation. The danger of Jones’ proposed concentration is not just the damage it will do to undergraduate education. It likely will have deleterious effects on the research enterprise itself as a consequence of limiting the key element of discovery— human intellect and imagination.

Assumption 4: “There won’t be enough money in the U.S. Treasury over the next decade to even maintain the current federal R&D baseline.” Consistency is not a word oftentimes associated with the American system of government. Many of the members of Congress who vehemently decry the government’s growing indebtedness voted for many of the measures that led to the accumulation of these deficits a few years previously. Although the current atmosphere makes it more challenging to convince our elected representatives to invest in research and education, there remain many in Congress who understand the need to invest continually in the interrelated areas of education, health, technology and economic competitiveness. The economy continues to show encouraging signs of improvement, offering the hope of greater budgetary flexibility.

Although the budgetary realities can never be ignored, they should not become the primary driver of our national research and educational policies. Rather than sit back and accept the “inevitable,” as Jones suggests, I would argue that our attention and energies would be better spent engaging in public outreach and political lobbying, and— yes— sponsoring undergraduate research.

References

1. Jones, D. A. (2010) Financial Pain Should Focus Universities. Nature 465, 32 – 33.
2. Scudellari, M. Q&A: Why Cutting Science Is Good. TheScientist.com. May 5, 2010.

Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chair of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.


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