Not without a fight

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 11, 2007 2:38 am

MSNBC has a deliciously number-filled article on “The Dangerous Wealth of the Ivy League“. Buried in the second half of the article (after such tidbits as the fact that
Harvard’s endowment just produced an investment gain of nearly 6 billion — yes, billion with a “b” — in a single year) was a somewhat suprising statement by the new president of Harvard:

“One thing we all must worry about — I certainly do — is the federal support for scientific research. And are we all going to be chasing increasingly scarce dollars?” says Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s new president.

Not that Faust seems worried about Harvard or other top-tier research schools. “They’re going to be—we hope, we trust, we assume—the survivors in this race,” she says. As for the many lesser universities likely to lose market share, she adds, they would be wise “to really emphasize social science or humanities and have science endeavors that are not as ambitious” as those of Harvard and its peers.

(emphasis mine). Essentially, she is soooooo very concerned about those of us toiling away at public institutions that she helpfully suggests that we ought to bow out of any “ambitious” research. You know, stick with the dull, routine research. For our own good, of course.

I can’t imagine that she has really thought this through. Are we honestly supposed to avoid developing cutting-edge research programs on the fear that Harvard will win all the federally-funded grants in the future, so why bother now? Because, last time I checked, there are a hell of a lot of us at public institutions who are doing just fine in that department, thank-you-very-much.

Now, I’m not saying that research is not significantly easier when backed by an institution with deep pockets. Obviously, it’s better to own your own gene sequencer than having to share with a couple of other labs. However, my sense is that in many scientific fields costs are dominated by salaries. In astronomy, and physics to a lesser degree, many of the big ticket items are shared national facilities, and most of the expense is instead in grad students, lab techs, engineers, and postdocs. More money helps because you have more brains to throw at a given problem.

Faust’s scheme is that with limited money available, a larger fraction of it will go to Harvard and its ilk, so those of us in the hinterlands had better prepare by downsizing. Given the dollars=people connection however, she’s suggesting that the Ivy League scientists will be the ones left in charge of charting the direction of science, since essentially all scientific personnel will be under their financial control. This is completely bonkers, and, given the enthusiasm with which the Ivies raid faculty from the state schools, empirically not in their best interest.

The fact is that institutions of all kinds (universities, funding agencies, graduate admissions commitees) are frequently lousy at anticipating in whom to invest their money. We invest in people whose research evenutally fizzles, while our rejects do amazing things elsewhere. Given this empirical truth, science is best served by sprinkling the money far and wide, and seeing what sprouts. Heck, instead of suggesting that the rest of us pack up, Harvard should consider starting its own version of the NSF and make seed grants to assistant professors at public institutions, because otherwise, where are their future tenured professors going to come from? They don’t need to shell out enough money that a 2 million dollar start-up package won’t look appealing when they try to poach that same professor a few years down the line. But a bit of seed money would be a prudent investment, and more beneficial for Harvard than suggesting the rest of us get out of the game.

UPDATE: Daniel Greenberg at the Chronicle has actually considered a variant of this as a serious option, suggesting that Harvard is the one who should get out of the federally-financed research game.

  • Lab Lemming

    There are far more creative ways to earn a living from Harvard’s obscene endowment. As an undergread, I had friends who commuted up to Harvard to earn some extra cash by teaching Harvard’s lab classes, since all those grant-winning researchers up there obviously had better things to do with their time than teach the hands-on component of their discipline…

  • robert

    Kind of wonderful that the president of Harvard is named “Faust”, no?

  • Seth

    In fairness to Faust, the article says she’s talking about “top-tier research schools,” not Ivies, in the bolded comment. There are quite a number of public universities that fit that category, as I assume even the President of Harvard would acknowledge.

  • Seth

    Maybe I’m wrong. Although the immediate context of the quote reads (to my definition of “top-tier research schools”) as I interpreted it, the implication of the whole article is otherwise. It’s hard to tell what Faust actually said, but I agree that it would be crazy to suggest all non-“Ivy Plus” universities pursue more modest goals.

    I think it’s also important to remember that who’s the best is very much a function of the precise area of research. Maybe only ultra-rich universities can afford to try to be the best at everything, but lots of places can (and have) carve out subfields where they’re the one of the top institutions. No need to be less ambitious at all.

  • Mike

    I don’t follow the essential reasoning of the deduction: if competition for limited federal funding is going to grow, shouldn’t sub-tier schools become more ambitious in their research objectives? I understand if they don’t have the talent, they’re not going to win all the time. But when funding becomes scarce funding agencies are going to prioritize and then I would think to get anything at all you have to be doing something interesting.

  • Jason Adams

    Her statement sounds so much like the evil villains in cartoons, I have to laugh.

  • Sean

    That is indeed a puzzling quote. There does certainly seem to be a danger that scarce dollars will be concentrated in just a few institutions; the balance is hard to strike, but that’s why I’ve never been really happy with the NSF’s idea to focus more on “centers” and less on individual grants.

  • Julianne

    Jason — I had thought of titling the post with a varient of “No, Mr Bond. I expect you to die.” I shared your sense of “Mwah-HA-HA-HA”.

    While I think she might concede the continued usefulness of University of Michigan if pressed, the depth of talent goes far beyond the prominent R1’s these days, at least in astronomy. As an example, UC Davis and Irvine have phenomenal things going on, even though they’re not considered the same level of “flagship” as Berkeley — I’d send an extragalactic- or cosmologically-inclined undergrad to either institution for grad school in a second.

    My favorite example of this shortsightedness is Geoff Marcy, who essentially put the detection of extrasolar planets on the map. For around a decade, he was a professor at San Francisco State, probably teaching 2-3 classes a quarter, maybe turning out a masters student from time to time. Meanwhile, he kept slugging away at radial velocity measurements of bright stars, looking for the periodic doppler shift produced by orbiting planets. He eventually found them and the game was afoot. Within a couple years, Berkeley hired him. I doubt Berkeley would have given him the time of day 5 years previously, but then suddenly they discover he’s Berkeley material. He never would have been able to make the switch if he hadn’t had some ability to pursue research at far from a “flagship” school.

  • NB

    If they have so much money from endowments/investing, why do they charge so much for an education? Where do payments from attendees go? (BTW, that may be a bit unfair, since not everyone around here knows that universities often *pay* e.g. physics majors a stipend! Sure, they have to grade papers etc, but it’s still an outlay and no income per that candidate.)

  • NB

    (That means Masters/PhD candidates not undergrads, of course.)

  • jefe

    It’s silly that public money goes to private schools, especially private schools that would be able to continue as is if the public money weren’t there. Make them spend that endowment by cutting off their supply of public money.

  • The AstroDyke

    President Faust’s statements are particularly interesting given the politics of the proposed Giant Magellan Telescope. GMT will happen much more easily if Harvard (or its donors) coughs up a lot of dough. Which casts Harvard as the astronomical Sugar Daddy.

  • The AstroDyke

    Also from that article:

    Carpick took much of his $550,000 in outside research grants with him to Penn…. The main reason he left Wisconsin is that it is prohibited by state law from paying domestic partner benefits, Carpick says.”

    Isn’t that interesting? A gay brain drain from public universities with discriminatory benefits policies (controlled by hostile state legislators). No wonder the UWisc president is lobbying so hard for DP benefits.

    Perhaps it’s the Bond references above, but I’m envisioning a comic book, “The League of Extraordinary Researchers”: a secret society of elite queer scientists, recruited away from the we-mean-well-but-no-health-care-for-you universities, and brought to a secret new laboratory complex at Harvard, where, funded by research grants from the Gay Mafia, they will take over the world. Mwa-ha-ha.

  • Julianne

    You and your nefarious Homosexual Agenda! Is nothing safe?!?!?!

  • Seth


    Harvard actually provides more financial aid than anybody else, and is planning to provide more still according to yesterday’s New York Times:

    I am not a big fan of Harvard and its vast wealth, but their financial aid to undergraduates is actually something for which they are to be commended. It looks to me like they’ll be losing money on any student whose family makes less than $180,000.

  • Kea

    The president of Harvard obviously didn’t inherit her character from the original Faust.

  • The AstroDyke

    J- I wish my Homosexual Agenda were more exciting. For 2008, it’s pay the rent, write 3 papers, and get 0.5 Ms of space telescope time.

    Oh, and destroy the fabric of American values. Almost forgot.

  • Lab Lemming

    Even more worrying than Harvard’s attitude towards funding is the article’s attitude towards maternity leave.

    The author lumps 3 month paid maternity leave- fairly standard in many developed countries- in with extravagances like the stabling facilities for undergraduates’ horses, and gilded dining halls.

  • Mr. Tompkins

    A song from 1946: “Take Away Your Billion Dollars”

  • Neil B..


    OK, thanks for that. But then who are all those students complaining about their left-over student loan burden? That can’t all, or even mostly, be BS.

  • Jonathan Lubin

    Well, my experience as a Program Officer at NSF is twenty years old by now, but in those days at least, we wouldn’t think of sending all, or even most, of our money to the Ivy League.

  • Ben

    People who have spent most of their careers inside the comfortable gates of elite private universities (Drew Gilpin Faust’s entire career is at Penn and Harvard) frequently buy their own propaganda about the superiority of elite institutions. In reality, there isn’t as much difference in the faculties as they want everyone to think. The facilities, however, that’s where the difference is. “The rich are different from you and me,” Scott Fitzgerald said. Hemingway countered “Yes – they have more money.”

    Money can make a big difference in astronomy, beyond salary, startup, and an office with a window. Magellan is 80% owned by private institutions. On the other hand Keck is 50/50 public/private, or 55/45 if you count the share Hawaii skims off the top. The private/public distinction doesn’t matter as much if you’re getting HST/Spitzer/Chandra time, or if you’re a radio astronomer. But it’s easier to get satellite proposals through if you can back it up with gobs of privately owned telescope time.

    Funding logic, however, does not really enter into this particular attitude. There is a type of academic who believes that academia is a highly efficient meritocracy, and concludes that the “best” name schools must have developed the best departments. This type of person often seems to believe that the proper role of state universities is to provide overflow tenure-track positions for grads of Ivy-Plus PhD programs who are not fortunate enough to get a job at an elite college shortly after degree. In other words, they want to live in the world of US higher education circa 1965. The problem with these people is not that they’re annoying snobs. It’s that they have no interest in improving public higher education. In fact, they have a incentive to keep state schools from rising above their humble station.

  • HI

    I wonder if there is also natural science vs humanities/social science thing going in Drew Gilpin Faust’s comment, given that she is a historian and not scientist. So, perhaps she wants those other schools “to really emphasize social science or humanities” than to waste their resources on natural science, being out of touch with the quality of research that is carried out at “the many lesser universities”. (Not that you want the president of a major university to be out of touch with scientific research.)

    I can’t imagine, for instance, Princeton’s Shirley Tilghman to make a similar comment considering that (A) she is a molecular biologist and (B) her Ph.D is not from one of the so-called elite universities.

  • Haelfix

    I just find it rather intellectually scary that you would want to shift the funding pie from natural sciences to social sciences.

    The latter is already so full, that they can’t even find novel topics for their grad students without stretching into fluff subjects. Hence the proliferation of academic research into topics like ‘Pornography as a means to analyze racial symbiotic relations in Lithuania’. Fascinating im sure, yet completely pointless.

    Meanwhile, we have a generation of high quality physicists being squeezed out of research positions b/c of funding cuts.

  • Tom Banks

    You’ve opened a real can of worms here. Elite private institutions are constantly trying to dominate all fields of science. It’s natural. If you were at such an institution you would just think it was part of the usual attempt to get the best people and most resources for your research that all of us do. You wouldn’t pay attention to the fact that the un-level playing field is tilted in your favor. And if you said “Let’s not go after X, even though he’s the best person out there, because it would damage university Y, which is an up and coming place”, or “Let’s ask for less money from the DOE and suggest that it go to University Z where they’re building a great new group”, you’d be laughed out of the faculty meeting.

    When we tried to build a new group at Rutgers, it was opposed by certain people at certain elite institutions in more or less the same terms as the Faust piece: great science is done at great places and little upstarts should not try to horn in on the game. When we succeeded in building a great group, we never got the kind of government funding that the elite institutions have (I’m counting dollars per person). This was at a time when certain elite institutions were at a low ebb and were getting scandalously large amounts per person in return for mediocre research. And of course, in the end, two of our most successful researchers got stolen away by elite institutions. You will find by the way that a substantial fraction of the science faculty at elite campuses got there after first proving themselves at other places, and then being stolen.

    So much of this is just a consequence of human nature, coupled with the nature of our political/economic system (not that I think there’s a better one – except in people’s imaginations), that it’s hard to see what to do about it. The two suggestions I have are:

    1)If you ever get to review a grant proposal from an elite institution, be fair but don’t be polite. That is: say things like X is a pretty good physicist, but really doesn’t deserve to be getting 2-3 times the average funding in this field. Do a good job, go into depth, and provide a lot of data. If enough people start doing this the government agencies will at least have to do something about the really egregious cases. Of course, a lot of the people at these institutions really are the best in the world and deserve extraordinary funding.

    2)Advocate a change in funding guidelines earmarking a large fraction of government science funding to institutions whose undergraduate tuition charges for in-state students, are below a certain (inflation indexed) bound. This is along the lines of “Harvard shouldn’t get any government funding” (a point of view I disagree with), but is more likely to actually happen. Not very likely, just more likely.

  • Moshe

    One quick comment about the set of issues Tom raises: I think one thing the Canadian funding agencies are doing right is providing grants to individuals rather than groups. If a person moves then, at least their government funding level does not change (of course other sources of funding may significantly change in such circumstances). Not sure how feasible it is to implement such model elsewhere.

    (More generally, I think diversity is important for science, tendency to concentrate on a few centers is not beneficial in the long term. Easier said than done, I know).

  • Ben

    In astronomy, most NSF and NASA small to medium grants are to individuals, not groups, for specific projects. (Large things are more like satellite or instrumentation proposals and that’s a somewhat different story, although again they go to a specific collaboration for that project.) The grants are evaluated based on the proposal and the track record of the PI and collaborators, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. By contrast, my understanding is that DOE physics funds groups. In principle, this means that in astronomy, funding is less tied to the institution and it’s harder to coast on a place’s or group’s reputation. The downside is that there’s not very much guarantee of continuity and people spend a lot of time writing proposals for what by DOE standards might be considered relatively small amounts of money.

  • Luke Lea

    I have a better idea. Break up Harvard.

    They have an endowment for ten universities, all stuck up there in a small corner of New England that is growing completely out of touch with the rest of America.

    The South and Lower Midwest, in particular, are short of first-rate educational institutions — and are discriminated against in admissions from places like Harvard, believe it or not. Read Ross Douthout’s book Privilege for substantiation on that last point.

    Tax deductible charitable contributions, after all, are partly public money, and the public has a right to a more equitable share of the benefits, maybe?

  • Luke Shaul

    I wouldn’t take this too seriously. There is a particulary strong “mass delusion” type of stupid making it’s rounds through varies communities at the moment. This one seems to be more connected. Best to take anything in the news with an even larger dose of skepticism. And be wary of philantropic institutions bearing gifts or offers that seem to good to be true.

  • David Bennett

    When reading this post, I was thinking that this is probably not a serious problem because the proposal review committees usually have a pretty broad representation of people from different institutions, and few of the reviewers are likely to hold the view that the most elite universities deserve all the funding. But then I saw Tom’s comments, which certainly contradict my expectation. Perhaps this problem is particularly severe in string theory because a larger fraction of the field is at the most elite universities.

    It seems to me that it would be best to try and take advantage of the good fortune of these elite institutions for the benefit of science and society as a whole. After all, as Luke Lea mentions, the tax deductibility of the contributions represents a federal subsidy of these institutions.

    My suggestion is that we should expect proposals coming from elite institutions, like Harvard, to have a substantial contribution from university matching funds. Of course, it is probably not a good idea for individual reviewers to try implement policy changes in the reviews of individual proposals. But it would be good for the funding agencies to adopt policy like this so that those like Harvard’s president Faust will feel the need to devote more of their wealth to direct research support.

    A particularly sneaky way to do this would be to include an estimate of the tax subsidies into the calculation of the indirect cost rates that universities can charge. Perhaps the indirect costs at Harvard would be negative!

  • Tom Banks

    This is a response to Dave Bennet. The problem at DOE is definitely in all of HE theory, not just string theory, and I have some experience suggesting it’s true in HEX as well. Second, I’ve been told by several people at DOE that the ONLY way to change relative funding rates is through comments by individual reviewers. DOE people are government functionaries and cannot go up against powerful interest groups (and make no mistake about it, that’s what the elite institutions are in the gov’t funding arena) without lots of supporting evidence from individual reviewers.

  • Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » Money, Money, Money()

  • Former NSF Program Director

    I spent a few years at NSF in the last decade.

    One of my mandates was to increase the impact of my budget by being diverse in several dimensions. Given equal proposals from MIT and Miskatonic, I’d recommend the latter. However, generally the MIT proposals were better.

    Also, given my fixed budget, my impact was larger if I recommended lower cost institutions (if the quality was comparable). This is where a public university would have an advantage.

    NSF has a special (small) pot of money for undergrad colleges (look up RUI) and for parts of the country that get a disproportionally small amount of money (look up EPSCOR).

    NSF is so used to researchers moving and wanting to take their money that it has a special form to make that easy.

    Nevertheless, one problem with poor universities is that they’re often in parts of the country that don’t think education is very important. Look at the average faculty salaries published in Comical Higher Ed. In much of the country, they are shamefully low. Given those boundary conditions, the feds can’t do much.

    Finally, it’s not allowed for invididual reviewers or program directors to require cost sharing that is not mandated in the solicitation.


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