1215 words • 4~7 min read

In the future all scientific research will be funded by Taco Bell …


At my university, we recently received a missive from the academic powers that be that faculty research productivity (and thus promotion, raises and tenure) will primarily be measured by the “amount of research funding (direct and indirect) received by the department and the college”.

I think this is a major problem and is a common one across universities.

It’s well known that some fields have lots of research funding available, while other fields don’t (for example). So effectively the above missive means that academic hiring and promotion decisions will not be done on a level playing field.

I personally work in the field of marine mammal science, which is an expensive, but massively under-funded field of research. There is governmental money available for marine mammal research in the US, but the Office of Naval Research holds the lion’s share of this funding, and allocates it to areas that it considers to be a priority for its mission, not necessarily toward areas that are a priority for conservation. Basically, if you want big marine mammal bucks, your research has to be about something that the US Navy is interested in. This ultimately is very constricting for academic freedom.

If getting funding is a major criterion for assessing academic performance, ultimately university research will drift towards where there are large amounts of money – i.e., military and biomedical research – and everything else will become second class. For examples research fields with non-lab based fieldwork, with low overheads and few equipment purchases, will get the short end of the stick. Many readers of this blog are involved with marine education, communications, social science or conservation policy research, and these fields will also be marginalized because there is little funding associated with them. This shift is already happening. There has been huge controversy in several countries as universities shut down research programs and departments to concentrate on those with lucrative funding. Some universities are even discussing axing undergraduate teaching to concentrate on winning research grants.

In particular, scientists that work in conservation or environmental fields may be vulnerable, as certain politicians intercede to reduce pesky restrictions to corporate growth – like environmental health regulations and protections for endangered species and habitats – by cutting funding for environmental research programs, such as has happened in the US, Canada and Australia in recent years. Government funding is often directed by such Governmental needs and “fads”. Great if your work is a topic of the day, not so great if your research is on a “controversial” issue for the Government, such as climate change, renewable energy, the need for universal healthcare, toxic chemicals produced by industry, effectiveness of environmental regulations, evolution, or the world being more than 6000 years old…

As stated above, universities specifically emphasizing grant production and overheads reward the fields for which it’s easiest to get big-grant projects (e.g., developing a new type of drug to cure erectile dysfunction or male pattern baldness), but penalize fields that are really important for the survival of the planet but are being marginalized by the powers that be (e.g., environmental health, environmental regulation, conservation, clean water, protected areas, climate change).

In the movie Demolition Man, there is a scene where Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock are taken out to the city’s snazziest restaurant, which turns out to be “Taco Bell,” because in the future, “after the franchise wars,” all restaurants are Taco Bell…  This is where I see universities going, where eventually there will be departments only for pharmaceutical research and military engineering.

We have a new university president (who refers to himself as the CEO of the university rather than the president) whose recent interviews with the press have been very worrying. Basically, he has been saying that the university should cater more to research that has financial and industrial benefits. Let’s face it, if university academics wanted to work for industry, they would work for industry! After all, that’s where the big bucks are – but that is also where there’s a lack of academic freedom. University researchers generally want to push the boundaries of what excites their intellectual curiosity, not what might be useful to industry.

Heaven forbid that academics should share their intellectual enthusiasm for research with students. In the new performance document, if faculty take on graduate students, this is not counted towards their research productivity, but is considered to be part of their general “university service.” This sends a really unpleasant message that mentoring students (and the next generation of researchers) is some sort of administrative burden, akin to sitting on administrative committees or completing paperwork.

Because there is an onus on getting grants, but little reward for taking on graduate students, why should faculty even bother recruiting new students? Far better to submit a single-PI grant proposal which will gain you high overheads and more sole or first-author publications, than waste your time mentoring a student from whom you will just garner publications where the student comes first in authorship, and receive little reward or credit from administrators. Despite students bringing in large amounts of tuition money, administrators seem to value overhead more – perhaps because the funds can be spent on whatever the administrators want, instead of on pesky things like teaching faculty, teaching assistants and educational supplies.

Many university presidents now have a business background, and it seems that many university presidents want to turn their institutions into businesses. But businesses are about making profits and cutting away anything that is not profitable.  Whereas universities are about imbuing students with, and pushing the boundaries of, knowledge, all types of knowledge…these are two very different – and likely incompatible – goals.

Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) for nearly a decade and also served two terms as the president of the SCB Marine Section. and he's currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society, the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the SCB Contravention Marketing Working Group. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 135 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation and co-edited a book on marine wildlife conflict resolution.

Connect with SFS