Billionaire money and academic freedom
If you haven’t seen this recent New York Times article by William Broad, entitled Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science, then 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.