Basic Funding: to Keith Robison

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Mon Dec 11 13:33:00 EST 1995

On 11 Dec 1995, Keith Robison wrote:

> Alexander Berezin (berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA) wrote:
> : "the basic grant of the order of 5-10 K$ should be a 
> : part of the package for the employing of any professor in
> : science and engineering. It should be subjected to only
> : a no-frill evidence of a continuing scholarly activity"
> : Who pays this basic grant (Geoffrey Hunter calles these,
> : still hypothetical, grants RBMG (Research Base Maintenance
> : Grants), funding agencies or universities distribute them
> : locally, is largely immaterial.

> Hardly.  Econ 101 says that if the granting agencies pay
> for them, the result will be an increase in the number
> of applicants.  

No, not in the case Geoffrey Hunter and I are discussing. 
We are NOT talking about the universal funding to "all
people with 'good ideas'". Perhaps, the key misuderstanding 
here is that people somehow believe that we advoacting 
"research for all" in the utopic environment (somebody
even wrote an article to this effect).

This is clearly not the case. What we are talking about 
is related to the professional group of PhD scientists who 
are hired by the accredited universities on tenure (or tenure
track) positions through the highly competitive and selective 
process. They are thus HIRED to do teaching AND research and 
to deny them any oprerating funds is equivalent to hire surgeon 
to a hospithal and deny him tools to perform the operations. 
This is an unexcusable and stupid waste of resources, not 
talking about determental social aspects such as on the 
ethics, esp. of younger generation of scientists, many of
whom find themselves unneeded and see their years of hard
and expensive training going to tubes. 

> This might not be a bad thing in the
> name of science (more scientists being funded to do
> basic research), but it will drive up the sum of such
> funding significantly.  Since almost all research
> funding is a zero-sum game (either the assets of the
> private funds or what the pols are willing to budget),
> ultimately you must raise the bar (i.e. stricter
> review standards), randomly deny applicants, 

> or cut down the allotments per researcher.

Glad that you mentioned the latter. This is actually the
prime reason why ideas like sliding scale are fiercely opposed 
and the "selectivity" model is insisted upon. If the system
will provide small grants to many more (who are presently
unfunded) it will soon become evident that many of them can
do a lot of good research on small budgets. People on
small budgets are very careful how they spend their money.
Dollar yield of many modeslty funded groups and researchers 
can easily turn out to be much higher than of many big shots 
grantsmanship mandarins of the present fund-controlling 
"establshement". Therefore, a (mass) demonstartion that you 
can do well on much smaller funds will quickly erode their 
power base (they are not using their own money but taxpayers'). 
Therefore, the elite is keep insisting on the premiss: 

"let's better keep well funded only the 'best' ('most 
competitive') researchers [ ourselves ] and cut all the 

Nothing will change untill this philosophy is defeated,
and of course it can only be done with political will
from the outside (not from within the present funding

> The idea of each institution guaranteeing such funding
> is a worthy one, but produces a question:  Why haven't
> faculty demanded such things in labor negotiations?

Here you touch the theme which I already discussed in
one of my presvious postings, namely "why faculty don't
demand ... (the changes; whatever... ) ... ?"

The answer to that (and I am not claiming here the 
originality, it is in several recent books) is that
(university) scientists as a professional group ("trade
guild") is one of the most disorganized in the world.

Plus scientists (paradoxically !) as a group have
one of the lowerest level of self-esteem. This is
an inherent part of our lot which comes from the fact
that any good scientist always have a lot of doubts,
almost never completely sure that he/she on the 
right track, etc. In short, there is an inherent 
deeply ingranted professional inferiority complex
described elsewhere. Add to this the fact that we are
splitted by the intenal feods of competition, professional
jealosy, peer review, fight for funds, fight for "me" 
directions, etc (recall the recent battles around the 
Superconducting Supercollider). So, how do you can expect
from such a divided bunch of people strong united actions ? 
Even real estate agents can perhaps do better as a 
professional guild than scientists.  
I must admit though that the (perhaps the first ?)
encouraging example was shown recently by the 
faculty strike at the University of Manitoba on the 
issue of the abolishing tenure (Admisistaration backed
up by the provincial government pushed for this). I have
not seen conclusive reports on the results, but from
what I have read it looks like profs were (at least
particlly) on a winning side. (perhaps our colleagues
from Manitoba can clarify more on the results).   

> Keith Robison
> Harvard University
> Department of Cellular and Developmental Biology
> Department of Genetics / HHMI
> robison at 

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