Funding & Congress: to Bert Gold

Keith Robison robison at
Fri Dec 29 11:54:26 EST 1995

Alexander Berezin (berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA) wrote:

: (some prev. stuff deleted: A.Berezin)

: On 28 Dec 1995, Bert Gold wrote:

: > Greg Harriman,
: The question is where (and how) to start REALLY doing
: something about it (grantsmanship, PhD overproduction, etc).

: Correspondingly, the only likely hope to achieve less 
: draconian, more fair, open and equitable funding system, with 
: lesser pressure to conveyorbelt more and more PhDs can 
: come from political side - Congress that is (is USA case). 

: Unfortunately, this likely means going through measures
: which I proposed earlier (or, rather, re-iterated earlier 
: proposals of many other people): legislative capping of the 
: total reserach funding per professor, disengagement of 
: graduate students' stipends and posdocs salaries
: from professors (should be employers of the University
: directly, not through particular prof), no matter how 
: unpopular these measures can appear to some (or even many).

The question is, are these proposals going to accomplish these
goals, and what additional effects will they have?  What your
proposals have encountered is mostly skepticism.  I have listed
some of my thoughts below; constructive criticism is invited.

1) Capping total research funding per professor

	Berezin has suggested that each PI's total research budget be
capped to prevent a few from monopolizing the pool of available research
funds.  The figure $100,000/yr has been mentioned, but this is quite low
for much biomedical research.  Much of modern biology requires expensive
instruments and facilities, which in turn often require a dedicated
technician for maximal value (examples would include DNA sequencers,
animal colonies, etc).  Just running a modest animal colony could probably
"eat" $100,000/yr.  Setting such artificial caps would probably
make impossible many productive lines of research.

2) Fund sharing

	Berezin has suggested that researchers could maximize their smaller
grants by pooling resources for high-cost services & facilities.
Encouraging such sharing and similar ventures (core & departmental
facilities) is certainly a good idea, but it is no panacea --
some facilities may be too specialized.  In addition, there is
the question of capital costs for the setting up of central

3) Disengagement of graduate student stipends & postdocs salaries from PI's.

	Berezin has suggested that the employer-employee relationship
between PI's and grad students/postdocs leads to abuses.  It's not
clear that such disengagement would have significant effects.  Many
gs/pd _do_ have portable or departmental funding.

	More importantly, other factors besides money tie someone to their 
boss -- grad students may fear losing too much time and work if they
move.  Also, if the current sources of outside assistance against
an abusive boss are ineffective (other faculty, administration, etc),
they will be just as ineffective under the new system -- students may
find themselves with nowhere to port to.

4) Entitlement research funding

	An entitlement is funding which is awarded to all who fit a given
set of guidelines, as contrasted with discretionary funding which
is awarded based on particular decisions (which could be random
lottery, review funding, or administrative fiat).

	Berezin has proposed that every academic professor be given 
a small ($10,000 was mentioned) research budget with little or no
advance review.  This would guarantee that all faculty have a baseline
to work from (a laudable goal).

	There are several potential effects of this strategy which may
greatly increase the number of such grants awarded, as well as siphon
such funding in possibly unpredicted directions.  

	Could such grants be used for non-science research? (humanities,
etc.) or mixed (art exhibits on science, history of science, etc).  
How far from the mainstream could researchers stray and still
keep such grants (e.g. faith healing, parapsychology, UFOs, creationism,
etc.).  Would faculty at teaching colleges be eligible?  Would post-docs
be eligible?  What would prevent such funds from being diverted from
research to educational funding (for example, by using it to fund
undergraduate research).

	In other words, what boundaries would be set, who would set them,
and would the end result be more good research or more bad research?
Of course, not all of the results suggested above are inherently bad;
some before-its-time science is labeled as "bad" (but so is a lot
of bad science), training undergrads through research rather than
classroom instruction might produce better graduates, etc.  But, they
all may alter the scope & success of such funding.  

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

robison at 

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