Friday, October 4, 2013

It’s all about the funding …

Just moments ago another advertisement for an academic position came across my desk with the words “must have a strong track record in fund-raising”. There was no mention of proven teaching ability or published research.  This seems to be an escalating trend in universities. A few months ago I had a meeting with a university administrator to talk about what counts towards getting tenure as a faculty member. I was basically told recruiting students and developing programs didn’t count; neither did mentoring students whether graduate or undergraduate. Leadership in, and recognition by, professional societies – doesn’t count. Poor teaching evaluations would count against you, likewise if you weren’t producing at least a few peer-reviewed publications a year.  But the number one criterion seemed to be getting money for the university through outside research grants, and only research grants – getting money for the university through attracting meetings to the campus, from having popular and well attended classes, or through attracting more students to the university, basically didn’t matter.

That meeting left me dismayed and depressed about the future of the university. I came back to academia after working for an environmental NGO, which I left because I was frustrated at spending the majority of my time raising money for administrative costs instead of achieving the aims of the organization (i.e. marine conservation). What I wanted to be doing was using my scientific knowledge to make an impact, helping to conserve threatened species and also trying to inspire and train young conservation scientists to make a difference. I thought that a university would be the best place for this. The above administrator made me feel like I was working for a business where making a profit was more important that education, intellectual innovation or making the world a better place.

Around the same time one of my graduate students informed me that a faculty instructor had advised a class to do research, not in what intellectually inspired them, or what they felt was important, but “where the funding is best.”

Over the past two decades government funding for research across the board has steadily decreased (when adjusted for inflation; Skyler 2013). With government budget freezes, sources of funding for external research projects are declining, have been completely axed, or the government agency employees are applying for them themselves to maintain projects and staff – with insider knowledge that makes it effectively impossible for outside academics to compete for these grants. Foundations are still offering grants, but government agencies are also applying for these grants to make up budget shortfalls, increasing competition for academics. Likewise non-governmental organizations, which may historically have been a source of funding for academics, especially those of an environmental bent, are now competing with academics for grants, as opposed to offering them, with increasing numbers of staff specifically dedicated to this task.

The budgetary forecast for government funding looks increasingly bleak as, with an expanding and ageing population, more government funds will have to be dedicated to programs such as Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security. The only area of government funding that seems to be unaffected is military spending, and military-oriented research (Skyler 2013). Linked to these spending forecasts, funds will also be available for biomedical research. The pharmacological industry will stand to benefit from an increasing and ageing population, and associated increased healthcare spending.

There is a science-fiction series on television at the moment called Continuum. The show portrays a dystopian future where everything is run by corporations and the military. Is that what we are heading towards in academia, where faculty will be pressured to do research with military or medical applications so that one day these will be the only research fields? Already the university’s greed for external grants is stifling my academic freedom – I have been pushed by certain Deans in the past to develop grants and write proposals for topics I am not particularly interested in or don’t think are important, just because there is funding available and a possible overhead for the university. Conducting projects that interest me, and may actually have big impacts in terms of environmental practice and management, is effectively looked down upon by the powers that be because they don’t bring big money into the university coffers. This financial situation also encourages a climate where overheads, salary and equipment go to university coffers instead of, for example, financially struggling graduate students or conservation practitioners and environmental groups in the developing countries where many of my projects are based.

I returned to academia because I wanted to find out why things happened the way they did, and because I had ideas about the way animals or people behaved, and because there were threats to the environment and I wanted to test if my hypotheses about them were correct. I didn’t want to spend my life filling in forms and making up budgeting spreadsheets, although I was willing to do that to a reasonable degree. If I had wanted to spend most of my time doing that, I would have become an accountant. It’s not the best use of my academic training and brain cells.


The current model of university research funding is unsustainable. US government projections for expenditure are going to be increasingly invested in health care and the military. Moreover, industry will quite frankly use their own scientists, so we can’t look to them for funding in the future – their in-house scientists are cheaper, faster and will give them the answers they want, not the answers the data support. Not only will this future environment restrict the range of research projects that are pursued, but there will be increasing corporate influence over the interpretation and disclosure of results.

 This is certainly evident in my field of marine mammalogy. The US Navy funds 70% of all marine mammal research in the U.S. and 50% of marine mammal research worldwide (Weilgart et al. 2004). There is evidence that the US Navy has used the threat of withdrawing funding to stifle comments from academics (Whitehead & Weilgart 1995; Weilgart et al. 2004)*, something which I have personally experienced., Some years ago, US Navy representatives called my university president and several Deans to note my comments about the impacts of navy sonar on cetaceans  and the fact that the Navy funds several university research projects, in a not terribly veiled threat. In the environmental consulting field this has long been recognized – the client often dictates the conclusions of a study, because if a client isn’t pleased, contracts and funding aren’t renewed (see Wright et al. 2013).

 The funding situation is unlikely to improve in the future and will likely get much worse. This will impinge on the whole nature of a university as a place of academic freedom to make new discoveries and to push back the boundaries of knowledge over a wide and varied selection of fields and disciplines. If the university continues the way it’s going, downplaying teaching and mentoring of students in favor of making money, it will stifle academic freedom. Or it could reassess its priorities and think about innovative ways to develop independent sources of research funding. If not, the universities of the future may only have two departments - engineering and biomedical science - and be little more than the research wings of the military and Big Pharma.


Skyler, J. 2013. Why you don’t “Fucking Love Science”. Published 17 Sept 2013.

Whitehead, H. and Weilgart, L. 1995. Marine mammal science, the U.S. Navy and academic freedom. Marine Mammal Science 11: 260-263.

Weilgart, L., Whitehead, H., Rendell, L. and Calambokidis, J. 2004. Response to “Resonance and Dissonance: Science, Ethics, and Sonar Debate”. Marine Mammal Science 20: 898-899.

Wright, A.J., Dolman, S., Jasny, M., Parsons, E.C.M., Schiedek, D. and Young, S. 2013. Myth and momentum: A critique of environmental impact assessments. Journal of Environmental Protection 4 (8A2): 72-77.

 *See also: Administrative Record, August 6-9, 2001, Natural Resources Defense Council v. Evans, 279 F. Supp. 2d 1129 (N.D. Cal. 2003).


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