This ain’t your parents’ research culture.
A lot has changed over the last several decades in how we do research. I wonder if we’re better off. I’d like to suggest that some of these changes need to be undone.
Consider the following significant changes from “the norm” of the past and how they should be corrected:
- GET RID OF BROADER IMPACTS: About 15 years ago, the National Science Foundation (NSF) instituted the formal requirement for demonstrating “broader impacts” in our research proposals (that is to say, in addition to the technical or intellectual merit of the work being offered). In my humble opinion, this was a most insidious change. After all, NSF is that last bastion of fundamental research, established for the benefit of improving understanding. All of the other agencies are mission agencies, whose research clearly needs to benefit their mission. At NSF, however, the broader impacts requirement was introduced because a vocal minority felt they were not getting enough immediate return from their tax investments in science. It’s absurd and should be repealed.
(Here’s an interesting quick game anyone can play: do a Google search on “top researchers of the last hundred years”, then try to determine how that list of individuals might have fared under the test of “broader impacts” … should Heisenberg or Pauli have been judged by their assessment of the utility of their research?)
Somebody needs to explain Pasteur’s quadrant to our elected policy makers.
- UNLEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD: Early in my research management career I was asked to provide a history of the US Navy’s establishment of what was called the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). Those of you who are Tom Clancy aficionados will recognize this acronym as the true-to-life basis for our maritime superiority in the Cold War; SOSUS was our acoustic network that served as the most effective component of our anti-submarine warfare toolbox, detecting Soviet submarines throughout the Atlantic and Pacific. Anyway, the short version of the story is that in the early 1950s a gaggle of Navy Admirals went up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a problem and a blank check. They invested in the best engineers and marine scientists to design, build and deploy the SOSUS array within about two years. They sole-sourced the contract, conducted no competition, and used a closed peer-review process. They did not invoke a Gantt chart of Technology Readiness Levels. In short, by today’s Federal Acquisition Regulations, they broke a lot of rules. The outcome, however, was clearly successful. Today, we are encumbered by so many accountability-based requirements, just to get to “go” on a research program that the odds are stacked against any proposal to the tune of 5:1 for rejection. Most of this dilemma is a consequence of ensuring that every researcher has the same opportunity to compete and that no unfair advantages are put in place. The same concept underlies the current trend toward prohibiting cost-sharing by institutions on research proposals. That idea is intended to ensure that the research faculty at a less well-off institution can compete fairly with another Principal Investigator at, say Cal Tech or Johns Hopkins. Okay, I get that, but maybe the better solution is to encourage research institutions to actually make investments in the research, and not rely exclusively on the federal coffers. That means playing on an uneven field, but it also means we’ll start strengthening the major research institutions and (gasp!) eliminating some of the smaller or less performing institutions. With federal funding getting tighter we need to rethink how we spread the wealth. The old saying that a rising tide floats all boats has an inverse: a sinking tide grounds the unmoving.
- COMMINGLE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE RESEARCH DOLLARS: Fortunately I can’t get thrown in jail for advocating this, but I can be locked up for doing it! Now, I’m stretching my point here, since this was never really done the way I’m proposing, but if you go back a century or so, you’ll see that a lot of the research that was done was supported by private benefactors. In fact the major researchers of the 19th Century were mostly wealthy entrepreneurs who were almost exclusively self-supported. What I’m suggesting here is that we researchers in the U.S. are competing against peers overseas who enjoy much more latitude in combining private (e.g. industry) funding with the resources of their taxpayers (just take a look at Finnish telecommunications research as one good example). We bend over backwards to ensure that the dollar from a corporate sponsor never sees the dollar from a federal agency, even though both dollars may be spent in the same lab by the same PI. Again, the basis for this makes sense: it ensures transparency as needed on how our tax dollars are used, and it avoids mischief in areas such as conflict of interest. But let’s assume for a moment that the vast majority of our researchers are smart, educable, and ethical, and that we build a system of oversight and accountability within the research institution. If those assumptions are viable then we ought to be able to combine investments from all sources in a way that gets more bang for the buck, eliminates unnecessary duplication of proposals, while still protecting intellectual property effectively. My guess is that industry would be a lot more eager to come on campus and pay for research. And, after all, with federal budgets trending as they have recently, we are going to want that industry investment on campus!
Okay, I’m finished. Now I’ll start cleaning up some of this shattered china!