Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is academic research a good investment?

The recent financial crisis has seen increasing pressure on research universities to justify the cost/benefit ratio for the "goods" they deliver, as seen through numerous "viral" articles such as this WSJ story from Texas A&M (see a response, H/T nanopolitan).

Last week, our college dean emailed us another article (pdf) from a conservative Texas think tank called Texas Public Policy Foundation. The article is not new (circa 2008), but given the wave of austerity measures hitting Europe, and a likely round of further spending cuts in the US, it is timely.

To summarize, the article thinks academic research is an extraordinary waste of tax-payer money, and it comes up with some recommendations.
  1. emphasize teaching
  2. separate useful and esoteric research
  3. review the PhD "glut"
While the article oversimplifies complicated issues, like a toy model of a complex physical phenomenon, the oversimplified model still provides some lessons.

Personally, I do think higher education needs some fixing. Some of the issues mentioned in the article are issues that have bothered me before. I hope academia takes a good hard look at itself, and really tries to institute reform from within (instead of publishing it as a paper!).

For if we don't change it from the inside-out, then it may be destroyed from the outside-in.


milieu said...

Alas, academic research is not robust. It can be so easily killed. Just imagine if there is some nasty problem with the govt. of any country, it may just cut off the academic research aid. So the threat is not as remote or outlandish as it might perhaps seem right now.
Though, I personally think that its a very important investment for any country, but unfortunately like all well-intentioned scheme it has been exploited. So yeah a reform would be in the interest of the academia.

Sachin Shanbhag said...

Historically a fair amount of "academic" research has been tied to the military (Archimedes, Alfred Nobel immediately spring to mind). Even in the US today, military agencies like DARPA etc. have huge amounts of funding. I don't think it can be cut as easily as one would think.

Research support for social sciences... that's another story.

milieu said...

But then that isnt "academic" then, is it? I mean those are practical research which have a definite practical application. I do not have the inside view of this, but I would expect that to get a millitary aid, you would either have to be well-connected, an established track record or a very feasible and practical idea.
OTOH most academic research are ultimately about long shot ideas which may or may not work. And as a side thing, they leave some hopefully well trained PhD students. It is these projects which might be in danger even in the hard sciences.
And if you go farther in history, most science was conducted by the nobility, wether it was the brahmins in india, the nobility of britain. And very few brilliant ppl from the impoverished background were able to break thru (say like Newton, who wasnt really poor as well). But that model may not work for the industrial kind of research that takes place in many fields e.g. genetics.

Gururaj M. Shivashimpi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gururaj M. Shivashimpi said...

Nice article Sir. But I am afraid what will happen to Academic research if the country like United States think that "Academic research is an extraordinary waste of tax-payer money". I guess it is the duty of Rich and resourceful country like US to try maximum to keep basic/academic research alive.
At the same time I would say this statement suits best for India, since all the universities/institutes in India are behind wasting public money to publish some stupid papers which are not going to bring single Rupee to our economy. Rather than over investment of money in academic research field, India should follow Japanese kind of investment of money for technology based (Applied) research.