Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote the first half of this pair of posts, focusing on the problems in Nicholas Kristof’s piece on why professors should be more engaged in the public debate. I came down pretty hard on it, not because I disagree with the general sentiment (my doctoral research and interests are very policy relevant and I make an effort to be in the policy space as much as the academic), but because his logic was surprisingly faulty and he didn’t seem to have any understanding of the institutional culture and expectations of academia. In effect, he missed an opportunity to discuss the actual problems facing the academy, and how these prevent professors from being more publicly engaged.

Fortunately, Michelle Goldberg wrote an excellent rejoinder about the plight of two highly respected public intellectual-professors being let go after long careers with Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health for failing to raise 80% of their salaries in external grants. While Kristof went off on confused, ill-informed tangents about what makes an academic or academic field relevant in to the public space, Goldberg focused on what Kristof should have been writing about: the corporatization of universities, where pulling in external funding is the difference between having a job and not. Doing ground-breaking research counts for nothing it seems, unless you hit the your fundraising target. I’ll take this a step further; the problem facing universities and researchers isn’t just the outcome of bad business planning at the university level. It’s the politicization of research, and by extension validity and truth.

To start: I don’t have a problem with the idea of encouraging professors in research-oriented fields to seek external funding. Part of my dissertation studies were funded by money my dissertation supervisor pulled in; he was able to hire me as a research assistant when the department didn’t have funds immediately available to give me a stipend. At a much larger scale pulling in something like a National Science Foundation (or National Institutes of Health) grant can give a department the latitude to fund students (saving money in the core budget), hire post-docs, pay visiting scholars, and generally increase the capacity to do research. This can be a useful model for certain projects, especially in the natural sciences where the costs of equipment and logistics can run into the millions of dollars. But there’s a danger to universities placing a demand that professors raise significant portions of their salaries through external grants, while not maintaining core budgets to keep them on during lean times.

One is the business model. The Mailman School, like many large research schools, relies heavily on government research grants. These days its not good to be relying on federal research grants, especially if you’re in the social and behavioral sciences. If an academic institution decided to hitch its financial wagon to the soft money strategy of external funding, then politics in Washington is currently delivering a harsh lesson in how the political economy of ridiculous budget battles affects university staffing. But this isn’t merely a technical budgeting and forecasting issue; budgets and Federal spending don’t live in an otological bubble, disconnected from politics and popular sentiment. This is where Kristof fell off the wagon and Goldberg hit the nail on the head. To quote:

“Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.”

Basically it was the only thing Kristof was right about, which is why it’s unfortunate that he only dedicated one short paragraph at the beginning of his article to it. But it’s not just money, it’s the interplay between Congressional politics and how we proxy the public interest with Federal (and State) budgets. Congress is the policy representation of our societal id, and as Kristof notes there’s a strong current of anti-intellectualism in that id these days. This is where the political economy of how we define validity, truth and public good comes in, and why we’re in such a pickle even though at times we’ve been leaders in natural and social science research.

Let’s start with the obvious; a Senator or House member doesn’t get elected by telling their rabidly anti-intellectual constituents that they’re wrong or ignorant. They also don’t get elected by telling their corporate funders that truly empirical research based on first principles has indicated that their business model or industry is god-awful for the public good. In combination, this is a solid reason for a member of Congress to be unsupportive of Federally funded research, since most of it points out uncomfortable truths about our economic system, global warming, poverty, infrastructure, system of government, etc. But let’s assume that a member of congress really wanted to understand what was going on in all that natural and social science research. How many are trained to properly evaluate science (social and natural) research?

Thanks to Business Week, we can find out. In the House, we have 1 microbiologist, 2 engineers, and 1 physicist, out of 433. In the Senate, there’s 1 engineer, out of 100. That’s a grand total of 5 out of 533 members of the Legislative branch. It’s important that we know this, since Senator Tom Coburn passed a bill that effectively gives Congress the ability to pick and choose with research gets funded through the National Science Foundation. Essentially, Coburn politicized the process of scientific and empirical inquiry. Don’t like research about homeless people because it shows that your anti-poverty policy prescriptions are fanciful lies? You can cut funding for it. Running for office and your petroleum industry donors find climate research distasteful? No problem, you can eliminate that in that NSF funding stream. We have allowed politicians, only 1% of whom might be even remotely qualified to understand science research, to be the ones who decide what is worthy of scientific inquiry even if they have no idea what a P-value or co-linearity is.

This is what was so infuriating about Kristof’s article; while peddling insulting caricatures of zany academics and their ethereal models and theories, it failed to address the real problems facing academia and universities. Goldberg hit on the problem of funding and what it means for the vibrancy of a research community, but the problem goes farther than that. As a nation we’ve allowed ourselves to be duped into believing that we can be world leaders in research, commerce, and foreign policy among other things, while simultaneously dismantling and defunding the institutions that for the last 70 years have been key to our success.

Fundamentally this isn’t a problem of university funding structures or academics doing their jobs, those are just symptoms. At it’s core, this is a problem of an American society that has given into cynicism and handed the reigns to politicians who prey on fear and ignorance. The only way to beat this slump is to regain our national spirit of inquiry, adventure, and critical thinking, the exact things made us leaders in research and discovery for much of the last 70 years.

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One thought on “Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 2

  1. The last three paragraphs are a nice summary. Here in NC where the State Legislature is actively dismantling the public education system the loss is apparent at fundamental levels.

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