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.


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