Over at Life as a Physicist Gordon Watts notes the email we received here at the University of Washington from our university president yesterday which told us that last year, for the first time, UW received over a billion dollars in research grants. Only John Hopkins receives more money. Of course the main reason for this is the UW’s school of medicine which brings in over half a billion dollars in funding every year. Holy moly that’s a lot of research grant dollars.
This got me thinking about research funding and I thought an incredibly stupid thought. Which is of course what this blog is for: sharing my incredibly stupid thoughts…in the public…so everyone can laugh at me. A big issue which comes up in physics graduate programs is the fact that the supply chain for academic jobs in physics is severely out of wack. The number of faculty positions versus the number of people who want these jobs is the source of an incredible amount of frustration and pain for the vast majority of graduate students and postdocs who will not obtain faculty positions. This is, of course, true across a multitude of fields, not just physics, but I’ll stick to physics as it is the field I know more about.
Of course part of the problem is that the incentive system for faculty members is askew: you get rewarded for bringing in money which supports graduate students. So in some form, the number of graduate students you mentor is a proxy for a measure of your success as a faculty member. Indeed there is very little incentive for a professor at a research institute to not add even more graduate students to the meat factory of the academic job market.
Now there are many things we can think about to fix this situation, almost none of them will probably ever come to fruition, simply because there isn’t much incentive to do so from the “winners”, who are also the ones who would be responsible to fix the system. From my own perspective I’m a big advocate of science departments owning up to the problem and providing a setting where, while research and the academic system is the core of graduate school experience, departments do a lot more to emphasize the general applicability of the degree they are earning. Physics, in particular, suffers greatly from the attitude that only a faculty position at a top research school is acceptible, ignoring the huge amount of success that physicists have had departing from this path (and yes, I think about this path myself, nearly every day, especially when my research isn’t working the way I want it to. Of course this is probably the reason I’m in my current position.) Of course, I’m sure there are those who don’t think there is a problem at all. If you’re one of those people you might as well stop reading now, since there ain’t no way what I’m going to say next is going to do anything beside cause an increase in your blood pressure.
So back to the stupid idea. My position at the University of Washington is as a research assistant professor. What this means is that I am supported entirely by grant money I raise. Of course one particular side effect of this is that it is much harder for me to take on a lot of graduate students. So my stupid idea was what would happen if this setup was much more widely in place. What if faculty were rewarded a lot more for paying their own salary than they currently are? What if the proportion of research faculty was much more in line with the proportion of funding coming in to a university? What if the proportion of research faculty to faculty rewarded more for teaching was more in line with the actual source of funding dollars? This would definitely change the ability to fund graduate students at the level they are currently funded.
But, of course it is a stupid idea. Increasing the number of research professors would cause all sorts of havoc with teaching. And really, do I want more people to have to raise their salaries like I do and the suffer the slings and arrows of funding fortunes? Maybe what I really need is someone to comiserate with 🙂 But it is an interesting model to consider: what happens if a university acknowledges the central nature of research in its endeavors and tries to accomidate this by more research positions, more teaching-emphasis positions, and a reduction in the number of traditional tenure positions? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I’d be curous to know if there are any examples of schools which have pushed in this direction and what the (probably insane) consequences of such a move have been.