Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Academic Reform

Any attack on an entrenched institution seems to draw strong feelings as to whether the critique is justified. However, this one seems to be flawed even by the standards of people with serious concerns about the current model for scientific research.

In general, I think questioning a model is good and necessarily to ensure strong future research. But there are several things that I think need to be kept in mind.

1) If it is obvious, has universal agreement and yet is not being done then there might be a reason for that. The idea that science and liberal arts degrees should better prepare students for work in the real world is an old idea; that it isn't being done is both because it is hard and because it diverts students from research productivity.

Incentives matters and so does viability.

2) Reforming tenure is an old canard. Let me make one point. At best speed, to become a tenured professor, one needs to spend 4 years as an undergraduate, 6 years as a graduate student and possibly as many as 5 years as a post-doctoral fellow (where salaries are typically well below what could be obtained elsewhere). After this 15 year preparation, professors then have 5 years to win grants and prove themselves worthy of tenure. This is a 20 year preparatory program, much of it at very low wages.

It is true that the reward system is loaded at the back end but reforming tenure to make being a senior professor less rewarding should ideally also consider the poor working conditions, long hours and low pay of the multi-decade training program!

Just a thought.

I really liked MsPhD's concern about what happens in a world of pure "soft money" positions. I am starting to suspect that the downsides of this paradigm (at least as currently implemented) outweigh the upsides.

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