Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education | The Nation

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Here are some thoughts I have been formulating regarding the situation of universities and the deplorable career outlook for young scientists/academics:

1) Put an annual limit on the amount of total federal grant dollars that one person (principal investigator) can be given for research (this would not include small business, education and other types of grants). This would allow more grants to be funded, which would benefit younger scientists—give us a toe in the door by spreading the funding a little wider. It would also incentivize institutions to hire more scientists (especially more independent ones who can apply for funding) and also incentivize scientists to pursue private funding as well as commercialization (entrepreneurism?) of products resulting from their discoveries.

2) Expand the number and size of common core facilities for various research needs (analytical chemistry cores, sequencing cores, animal facility cores, etc.) and the number of stable career staff scientists positions (“permanent” with benefits)—but have them report not to an individual PI or faculty boss but to the department as an institutional resource (not the property of an individual PI).

3) Make the identity submitter of grant proposals and manuscripts unknown to the reviewers and decision makers as much as possible.

4) Create/fund a much wider variety of permanent/stable staff scientist career track positions at institutions geared toward PhDs—particularly for core research service facilities (which should be expanded greatly).

5) End the system of tenure for faculty, it’s a concept whose time has come and went.

6) Mandate twice-per-year surveys for trainees (students and postdocs) paid on grants to be sent directly from the agency to the trainee and directly back to the institution. These should focus on career outlooks, career services provided at the institution, human resources grievances/complaints, and especially (the bulk of the survey) should focus on the quaity of mentoring they are getting. Mentoring scores should be utilized to evaluate future grants in which a PI requests funding for trainees.

7) Mandate that all institutions eligible for federal funding allow postdocs (and possibly graduate students) to be sole principal investigators on grants which they write if they choose.

8) Forbid the hiring of scientists/researchers/faculty based on marital status. This practice is nepotism: it is deplorable, without merit, greatly reduces innovation and productivity in science and probably also violates equal opportunity laws—certainly in spirit if not in letter.

9) Remove “trainee” (student and postdoc) salaries/stipends from research grants and make them all competitive fellowships, or (but this second one has some problems) give the money to institutions to pay student stipends with so that individual professors do not do the hiring or control the trainee’s employment/salary/benefits directly.

10) Fund “innovation incubators” for postdocs (but with independent researcher titles) to work in common labspace, no offices, and using core facilities to pursue our research without a faculty boss. These researchers could do a lot with such limited resources, as long as we have independence. We could pursue our own funding and even stay in those positions if we don’t feel the need to seek higher titles—just remain productive in that job indefinitely. Those of us who want a larger lab of our own can use the position to create preliminary data and apply for grants to do it—either to “earn” more lab space at the same institution or apply for positions at other institutions.

11) Limit the number of employees that an individual faculty scientists (or “permanent” scientists in federal agencies and national labs) lab can have—limit on grad students, postdocs, and technicians. Possibly only limit trainees (grad students and postdocs). This will allow faculty scientists to actually focus more on science and less on administration of large laboratory empires. Often the lab bosses are disconnected from much of the research going on in the largest labs. This causes an awkward situation whereby the independent scientist (postdoc, etc.) who conceived and conducted the research must add the boss to a senior position on the grant or publication artificially, thus making it impossible to distinguish whose ideas they were and who did the work, further exacerbating the difficulty for the employee to get their own independent position and lab. This situation has a severely negative impact on the innovation per dollar of federal funding.

12) Removing “trainee” (student and postdoc) funding from grants and put it into competitive fellowships, giving students and postdocs more autonomy and control over their “training” (I can’t say I’ve ever personally seen a postdoc be trained by a professor).

13: Forbid institutions from having directors of centers or institutes or other high-ranking administrative posts also have labs with trainees working in them. At least I would make all administrators ineligible for federal research and training funding. I have seen students in labs “run” by center directors and such flounder too much while their “mentor” is nowhere to be found for months at a time or longer—while they go take care of those aspects of their career that “pay the bills” and for which there is accountability, whereas there is no accountability for mentorship.

14) Remove “trainee” positions (postdoc and student) from federal agencies (USDA, NIH, etc.) and National Laboratories. These institutions (and I have a letter from an official at NIH describing this) do not have training as part of their mission. Thus, since there’s no obligation for their bosses to provide training, trainees shouldn’t be there lest they subject themselves to being used as a temporary cheap pair of hands.

15) Regarding “university” athletic corporations: I propose one of two options. (1) Since anyone else who brings money into the university is charged about 50 percent of the value of that money (grants, money from inventions, etc.) for overhead, the athletic corporations (often not actually part of the university) should at least be charged the same amount of their revenue; (2) allow for complete privatization of the athletic corporations—create a professional league of private teams that sponsor schools (and even allow students to play on them if they wish). That would remove the BS facade that they are legitimately part of the university’s mission and financially connected to the university (often they are separate entities that simply have just enough of a one-sided-benefit connection to parasitize the university). This would more importantly allow the athletic corporation to bring in much more money and also allow the university to charge a lot more for branding rights and rights to say they sponsor the school. It would also incentivize the stadiums and other facilities to move away from the campuses, creating much less of a distraction for those of us who are simply not interested.