Home > education, math, math education > Billionaire money and academic freedom

Billionaire money and academic freedom

March 21, 2014

If you haven’t seen this recent New York Times article by William Broad, entitled Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Sciencethen go take a look. It generalizes to all of scientific research my recent post entitled Billionaire Money in Mathematics.

My favorite part of Broad’s article is the caption of the video at the top, which sums it up nicely:

Funding the Future: As government financing of basic science research has plunged, private donors have filled the void, raising questions about the future of research for the public good.

In his article Broad makes a bunch of great points.

First, the fact that rich people generally ask for research into topics they care about (“personal setting of priorities”) to the detriment of basic research. They want flashy stuff, bang for their buck.

Second, academics interested in getting funding from these rich people have to learn to market themselves. From the article:

The availability of so much well-financed ambition has created a new kind of dating game. In what is becoming a common narrative, researchers like to describe how they begged the federal science establishment for funds, were brushed aside and turned instead to the welcoming arms of philanthropists. To help scientists bond quickly with potential benefactors, a cottage industry has emerged, offering workshops, personal coaching, role-playing exercises and the production of video appeals.

If you think about it, the two issues above are kind of wrapped up together. Flashy academic content goes hand in hand with flashy marketing. Let’s say goodbye to the true nerd who doesn’t button up their cardigan correctly. And I don’t know about you but I like those nerds. My mom is one of them.

This morning I thought of another way to express this issue, from the point of view of the individual scientist or mathematician, that might have profound resonance where the above just sounds annoying.

Namely, I believe that academic freedom itself is at stake. Let me explain.

I’m the last person who would defend our current tenure system. It’s awful for women, especially those who want kids, and it often breeds a kind of arrogant laziness post-tenure. Even so, there are good things about it, and one of them is academic freedom.

And although theoretically you can have academic freedom without tenure, it is certainly easier with it (example from this piece: “In Oklahoma, a number of state legislators attempted to have Anita Hill fired from her university position because of her testimony before the U.S. Senate. If not for tenure, professors could be attacked every time there’s a change in the wind.”).

But as we’ve seen recently, tenure-track positions are quickly declining in number, even as the number of teaching positions is growing. This is the academic analog of how we’ve seen job growth in the US but it’s majority shitty jobs. And as I’ve predicted already, this trend is surely going to continue as we scale education through MOOCs.

The dwindling tenured positions means there are increasing number of people trying to do research dependent upon outside grants and funding, and without the safety net of tenure. These people often lose their jobs when their funding flags, as we’ve recently seen at Columbia.

Now let’s put these two trends together. We’ve got fewer and fewer tenure jobs, which are precariously dependent on outside funding, and we’ve got rich people funding their own tastes and proclivities.

Where does academic freedom shake out in that picture? I’m going to say nowhere.

Categories: education, math, math education
  1. March 21, 2014 at 9:57 am

    So, Cathy, you don’t want rich people funding research. Do you want poor people funding research? Yes, Bill Gates funding the Common Core gets a lot of people upset, but it would be the same if it was funded by taxpayer money.


    • April 4, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Mentioning Bill Gates – thanks to his funds, eugenics will by far more efficient (read with irony).


  2. March 21, 2014 at 10:17 am

    One problem with this article: it described only positive research investments such as research to cure cancer, end polio, and conquer other diseases. It didn’t describe the billionaires investments in politics; or their investments in for-profit de facto private charter schools; money spent on misleading “research” on climate. Also the article didn’t challenge the assertion made the “former astronaut” who contended that NASA’s costs for a project would be twice what an entrepreneur would pay… nor did it provide any evidence that what he said was true. My hunch: the costs WOULD be lower because the personnel costs would be lower and some of the research facilities were provided for free or at a deep discount by the government or a college or university.

    As one who blogs on public education policy issues, I’ve concluded that the “secret sauce” for charter schools funded by billionaires is analogous: they pay nothing or next-to-nothing for rent; pay non-union entry-level teachers low wages and provide them with limited benefits; and on top of this they cherry pick students, excluding the ones that are tough to deal with. Needless to say, this lowers the cost to operate schools but it also has the effect of lowering the standard of living for everyone except the oligarchs who get to decide unilaterally where to spend their money and adds fuel to the fire that schools are failing. Ain’t plutocracy grand?


    • March 21, 2014 at 10:22 am

      Since charter schools ARE public schools, and not private schools, why should they pay rent when union run public schools do not pay rent? Furthermore, in NYC many non-public-schools organizations use public schools rent free. Why is this allowed?


      • March 23, 2014 at 8:30 pm

        NY Courts have ruled that charter schools don’t have to comply with rules that regulate public schools, most especially rules that govern fiduciary oversight, like audits. Why aren’t newspapers outraged at this? Many for profit schools aren’t paying any rent for classroom space but are paying dividends to shareholders. Why aren’t taxpayers upset a this? If taxpayers are paying for classroom space and the charter schools are non-profit, they SHOULD get the space for free… and I’m not sure if there are any “union run schools”… though some Fox viewers and conservatives might think there is such a thing…


  3. March 21, 2014 at 11:23 am

    It isn’t just in the sciences. Universities are accepting donations to establish chaired professors in things like “conservative thought” and “free enterprise.” Funny, I didn’t know that either of those was an academic discipline.

    abekohen: Of course we want rich people to fund research — through taxes, so they don’t get to dictate the research priorities.


    • March 21, 2014 at 11:40 am

      There is always someone dictating research priorities. It’s just a matter of who dictates. If some rich person can fund research into curing my wife’s cancer, I would be overjoyed.

      I certainly would not want Zeke Emanuel dictating research priorities.

      And as to “conservative thought,” I audited some classes at Hunter College and instead of a class on Psychology of Women, it was a class on “liberal thought.” So I guess we don’t need an endowed professorship in “liberal thought,” but “conservative thought” did not appear in any of the classes I audited.


  4. March 21, 2014 at 11:51 am

    One doesn’t have complete “academic freedom” even when research is only publicly funded. Public funding agencies have their own agendas and priorities which tend to be fads which are easy to sell to politicians.


  5. Andy
    March 21, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    The NSF budget is, adjusting for inflation, higher than it was 10 years ago during an economic boom. I wouldn’t say that federal spending on research has “plunged.” State support of public universities is probably lower, though — but how much has that come out of research budgets vs student tuition increases?


  6. mathematrucker
    March 21, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Robert Reich’s film “Inequality for All” has been on Netflix for the past few weeks. In it he describes a virtuous cycle whereby a strong middle class leads to more public resources for things like research and education, which in turn lead back to a stronger middle class. He also describes the cycle going backwards when the middle class dwindles. The future is difficult to predict, but my hunch is that global cooling will occur before the return of a strong middle class in America.


  7. March 21, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    I kind of took it one step further here too with Off shore tax havens as some of these same philanthropists are the same ones with tax havens so they don’t pay full taxes in the US and them come as heroes to be philanthropists? A lot of the same folks and companies on the same lists:) So there’s the control where they spend their money “where” they want and kind of competes with NIH Grants as they are shrinking all the time and of course the tax money from the havens could help…
    Ok so the next step here, well for being philanthropists, guess what they get, a US tax break..seems like a circle that keeps going if you will.
    It’s going to be interesting to see in July when the new FATCA laws come in to where all financial institutions have to notify the US IRS about their US customers with money in their banks. Israel is already starting up to comply. FATCA is the foreign account tax compliance act but wonder who’s going to try and stall it off maybe, hope not but some might figure some loopholes around it. I’m no legal expert on how the Intellectual Property revenues work through the “Dutch Sandwich” and others but it’s out there.
    So yes, private industry has taken over to do it the way “they” want and Gov chokes for grant money. Broad Institute just laid off 22 researchers over a shrinking NIH grant.


  8. March 21, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    If not funding from rich people, funding from where? Governments in a range of developed countries are trying to reduce their spend on universities and that will only accelerate as populations age and a greater proportion of taxes are required to fund health and pension entitlements.


  9. March 22, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns.


  10. March 24, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    saw your joke about “hope theres a future for research funding other than just citing simons” on another blog, lol, but then not totally laughing either.
    think youve raised a very deep/troubling issue & its great the NYT has done a big profile on this.
    alas though science/research has always been somewhat 2nd class status throughout the ages, limping along. an interesting case study in my field, Babbage, a very great book on that, planning to blog on it sometime….
    it would seem the basic concept of the govt representing/protecting a commons has been messed up … aka social contract, which is not much of a contract or if it is, is “honored largely in the breach” as the saying goes…
    another interesting case study is Dwave that has managed to scrounge up over $100M through private funding for a highly speculative scientific research project (straddling the very fine line here) but it does seem almost like crazy luck considering the environment….


  11. Tim Schafer
    March 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Stumbled across your work via this: http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/12/how-corruption-is-strangling-us-innovation/ All very good and important stuff. On a fun note, have you read Anathem by Neal Stephenson? I do think you would enjoy it, if you haven’t already 🙂


  1. April 1, 2014 at 12:12 pm
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