If we learn anything about educational policy, we should learn that what we have tried over the last couple of decades to improve student achievement doesn’t work very well. I won’t bore you with all the statistics showing that academic ability of U.S. students lags that of most other developed countries and our ranking is not improving. I would like to explore one reason for lack of progress besides faulty federal education policy. And that reason is research funding. We don’t know enough about how brains learn and remember, nor how to apply what we do know to educational policy.
The recently announced winners of the Nobel Prize included nine from the U.S. In a recent joint interview by leaders of the American Association of Science, the winners spent little time discussing their research achievements, preferring to expound on some serious concerns about how research is now funded in the U.S.
Of course, some of these concerns could be considered whining. Like much of the general public, the scientific community has become dependent on government. When federal funds don’t grow at high rates, scientists can be cry-babies too. Nobody seems to care much about the growing federal debt and a very real threat of looming financial disaster in this country. Interest groups, including those in science, think if we have to cut funding, it should come out of somebody else’s piece of the pie. As a result, nothing much gets cut anywhere.
But there are legitimate issues about science policy and how federal money is allocated for research. The U.S. leads the world in Nobel Prizes by about 3 to 1. Actually, this understates our prowess. Young scientists from all over the world come here to learn world-class science, but we make most of them go back home to become science superstars in their own country. At the same time, we have little stomach for deporting uneducated illegal aliens. It’s hard to think of a more stupid immigration policy.
Randy Schekman, physiology winner, said that many of our best young foreign scientists are "returning to their countries because those countries, unlike ours, see the promise of investment in basic science. It's actual damage that's occurring right now." Several of the other laureates concurred.
The future of U.S. science may well be in jeopardy. The new Nobelists point out that the buying power of National Institute of Health funding has shrunk by 28% over the last seven or eight years. Moreover, government needs to re-think how that money is distributed. For example:
- Michael Levitt, who won the award for chemistry, said "A huge change in the last 30 years has been that people under 40 get almost no money, and people over 65 get lots of money. Everyone here would agree that we made our discoveries when we were under 40."
- James Rothman, winner in physiology, blamed big-science mentality where too much money as being “allocated into pre-determined projects is heading toward bureaucrat-driven science."
I fought the grant wars for years and finally gave up. I got too few grants for all the time I wasted writing proposals. Several of the Nobelists commented on how much time scientists waste writing proposals that don’t get funded.
Another part of the problem, apparently not mentioned in the interview, is that too much money is soaked up by too few grants. Universities have negotiated enormous overhead fees, sometimes exceeding 100% of the grant, and that is money that mostly goes into the institutions’ general fund, not the funded project. Also, too much grant money goes to salary support for the scientists. It used to be that universities were committed to supporting their scientists. Now, universities expect their scientists to hustle money for the university. As a result, too much grant money gets consumed by projects that are scientifically sexy and will sell, not necessarily for the most promising science. An associated problem is that government spends way too much grant money pursuing scientific fads. Far too many areas in science have no chance of getting competitive funding simply because they are currently unfashionable.