Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Academic R&D and the #FiscalCliff

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published the comments of Michael McRobbie, President of the (R&D strong) Indiana University, on the vulnerability of academic research to the fiscal whim of Washington. The article and discussion may be followed here:

The Multibillion-Dollar Threat to Research Universities

Indeed, it's not a pretty picture for academic R&D, and we were already in a rut, well before this confluence of "fiscal cliff" events formed.

Nevertheless, there are several strategic initiatives that research universities can pursue, to ensure that they recover from what events may unfold over the coming months and years:

First, universities must diversify their sources of research funding. As long as I have been involved in academic research, faculty around me have relied almost exclusively on NSF, NIH, DOE, DoD, and the like. All of those sources are tied together by the short-sighted whim of Washington, and it is high time that academics who do R&D start thinking about how to supplement those funds and assist faculty with development of other resources. (And to make matters worse, I find that many junior faculty don't even know how to pursue funds from the traditional sources)

Second, academia needs to become a lot more engaged in the process of electing government leadership and finding strong advocates for research support. Academics generally regard lobbying as a negative thing, but... the time has come to get better plugged into the process.

Third, I worry very much about the junior faculty who've been through the rough patch in funding and may see more of the same, or worse. When I was a junior faculty member, there was *zero* adjustment made to tenure review standards despite the fact that funding probability was single-digit during those years (and hasn't really recovered since then). If the funding picture becomes particularly bleak then, you know what, maybe it's time to weight the teaching of our junior faculty just a wee bit more than how much funding they bring in. Mark my words, schools that don't adapt to the funding climate will lose a lot of talented people. That is short-sighted.

Fourth, on the topic of finding funds for research, I believe that our universities need to focus a lot more on center-level research funds, rather than the usual single-PI grants. There are many reasons for this but one of the most important, from my perspective, is that it's just become far too difficult for junior faculty to land the really prestigious career awards etc. And even if they do, they are generally receiving a lot less funding than they would have a few decades ago.

I have many more ideas about this but I confess I am frustrated by how little our academic administrations listen to the ideas. the usual assumption is that we should simply continue with business as usual, even as Rome burns.

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