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2016 September 4

The Great Mistake by Christopher Newfield

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Johns Hopkins University Press has announced pre-orders for Chris Newfield’s new book, The Great Mistake:

The Great Mistake

How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them

Christopher Newfield

In The Great Mistake, Newfield asks how we can fix higher education, given the damage done by private-sector models. The current accepted wisdom—that to succeed, universities should be more like businesses—is dead wrong. Newfield combines firsthand experience with expert analysis to show that private funding and private-sector methods cannot replace public funding or improve efficiency, arguing that business-minded practices have increased costs and gravely damaged the university’s value to society.

The book should ship in October 2016.

I’ve been reading his blog Remaking the University for quite some time, and I’ve found that he has intelligent things to say about how public universities are funded. I’m not sure I’d want to read a 448-page book on the subject with very few illustrations (2 halftones, 33 charts), but people who are interested in what has happened to make public universities so unaffordable in the past decade or two should read at least some of his writing.

2015 December 24

Glut of postdoc researchers

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I’ve read a number or articles recently about a big problem in academia, particularly in biomedical research—the overproduction of PhDs and resulting pool of underemployed researchers.  Here are excerpts from two of them:

Source: Glut of postdoc researchers stirs a quiet crisis in science – The Boston Globe

Postdocs fill an essential, but little-known niche in the scientific pipeline. After spending 6 to 7 years on average earning a PhD, they invest more years of training in a senior scientist’s laboratory as the final precursor to starting labs where they can explore their own scientific ideas.

In the Boston area, where more than 8,000 postdocs — largely in the biosciences — are estimated to work, tough job prospects are more than just an issue of academic interest. Postdocs are a critical part of the scientific landscape that in many ways distinguishes the region — they are both future leaders and the workers who carry out experiments crucial for science to advance.

The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they’ve gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.

Biomedical research training traditionally has followed a well-worn path. After college, people who want to pursue an advanced degree enroll in graduate school. The vast majority of biology graduate students then go on to do one or more postdoc positions, where they continue their training, often well into their 30s.

Their progress is very poorly tracked; the leader of a national report on the state of postdocs has called them “invisible people.” The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country. Salaries vary, but rarely reflect their level of education. The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.

The problem is that any researcher running a lab today is training far more people than there will ever be labs to run. Often these supremely well-educated trainees are simply cheap laborers, not learning skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs — teaching, industry, government or nonprofit jobs, or consulting.

This wasn’t such an issue decades ago, but universities have expanded the number of PhD students they train — there were about 30,000 biomedical graduate students in 1979 and 56,800 in 2009. That has had the effect of flooding the system with trainees and drawing out the training period.

In 1970, scientists typically received their first major federal funding when they were 34. In 2011, those lucky enough to get a coveted tenure-track faculty position and run their own labs, at an average age of 37, don’t get the equivalent grant until nearly a decade later, at age 42.

From How to build a better PhD:

Not all of these students want to pursue academic careers — but many do, and they find it tough because there has been no equivalent growth in secure academic positions. The growing gap between the numbers of PhD graduates and available jobs has attracted particular attention in the United States, where students increasingly end up stuck in lengthy, insecure postdoctoral research positions. Although the unemployment rate for people with science doctorates is relatively low, in 2013 some 42% of US life-sciences PhD students graduated without a job commitment of any kind, up from 28% a decade earlier. “But still students continue to enroll in PhD programmes,” Stephan wrote in her 2012 book How Economics Shapes Science. “Why? Why, given such bleak job prospects, do people continue to come to graduate school?”

There may be too many PhD graduates for academia, but there is plenty of demand for highly educated, scientifically minded workers elsewhere. So some scientists propose that the PhD should be split into two: one for future academics and a second to train those who would like in-depth science education for use in other careers.

Biologist Anthony Hyman, director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, is one of those who thinks that a split PhD might work. Students in the academic-track PhD would focus on blue-skies research and discovery, he says. A vocational PhD would be more structured and directed towards specific careers in areas such as radiography, machine learning or mouse-model development.

Some scientists call for more drastic measures — cutting down the number of people who pursue a PhD.

Siphoning off more students into master’s programmes is one way to reduce PhD numbers, says Bruce Alberts, professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the department of medicine at UCSF. A master’s can offer advanced scientific training that is sufficient for many careers, as well as a taste of research, in one or two years rather than the four or five eaten up by a typical PhD. “In an ideal world, everyone would go in for a master’s,” Alberts says.

Engineering fields have not suffered the postdoc-holding-tank problem that bio fields and, to a lesser extent physical sciences) have had.  I believe that this has been because of several inter-related phenomena:

  • The PhD in engineering is only for academics and a few blue-sky researchers.  The degree needed for a top-notch industrial job is an MS (or, sometime, an MBA).  Most grad programs in engineering produce far more MS students than PhD students.
  • Engineering students can get good entry-level jobs with just a BS, so there is little pressure to go on immediately to grad school, unlike biology, where there are huge numbers of BS students chasing relatively few (and not very good) jobs. Many bio students, seeing that almost all the interesting jobs are advertised for PhD holders, feel compelled to go on to grad schools.
  • Undergraduate engineering programs are less subject to grade inflation than other fields—engineering faculty see passing a student in a course as certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the subject, not just that they’ve spent time in the presence of people who knew what they were doing.

Because a BS in engineering still certifies a reasonable level of competence, the BS degree is still recognized as suitable for entry-level jobs, and an MS reflects a higher level of specialization and competence. This allows the engineering PhD to be reserved for research and teaching, rather than becoming the entry-level degree it has become in bio research.

It will be very difficult for biology departments to undo the damage they have done to the academic system—draining the postdoc holding tank into real jobs will take a decade or more, even if bio departments reduced their PhD production to sustainable levels.  The huge glut of PhD-trained biologists will keep salaries low and discourage biotech companies from hiring BS-level bio students for any but blue-collar technician positions.  Perhaps the best thing university biology departments could do is to undo the grade and credit inflation that has been happening over the past three decades and start failing significant numbers of students, rather than being the STEM major of last resort for those barely capable of doing science.  This would reduce the glut of biology students and raise the quality of those who do finish BS degrees.  In a decade or so, biology departments could make the BS become the working degree for biotech industry, reducing the training time for biotech workers by over a decade.

Quite frankly, I don’t expect biology departments to raise their standards and choke off the flow of cheap postdocs.  NIH funding is arranged to make postdocs be the preferred researcher (cheaper and more productive than either grad students or faculty), and biology research labs have become structured around the postdocs.  Universities (particular ones with med schools) have made the “soft-money” researcher, whose job exists only as long as there is a grant to pay it standard. The disposable researcher has become the norm, just like disposable plasticware has replaced glassware in the labs.

I think that there will need to be some shakeups in the federal funding of research to break up the postdoc factories and encourage universities to return to the days of small labs with faculty actually running their own experiments with just a handful of students.  A few things that might help are

  • limiting PIs to no more than 2 federal grants at a time,
  • limiting the size of grants to no more than is needed to support a technician and a handful of postdocs or grad students,
  • greatly increasing the number of grants (not necessarily the total $), by breaking up the current scheme of big grants into many little ones, and
  • requiring that grant-seeking institutions pay at least half the salaries of any non-student researchers from non-federal sources.

Changes like that would force universities to convert a lot of soft-money positions into permanent faculty positions (in order to have enough PIs to submit grant requests), and would force the funding agencies to spread the grant money out over a much larger pool of researchers (rather than focusing it all on a handful of golden boys).  There would no longer be an incentive to have huge numbers of inferior “hands in the lab” as grad students or postdocs, and students and postdocs would get more attention from faculty as labs shrunk and faculty became focussed on research and teaching instead of grant writing and administration.

Of course, it will never happen—those who run the funding agencies like having a postdoc holding tank full of cheap labor and think that grant writing and grant administration is far more important than research or teaching.  They’d rather be responsible for a pointless but huge “moon shot” project than for hundreds of small projects, some of which actually advance science.

It has become my belief that the real purpose of federal funding for science is to slow down the progress of science and engineering so that politicians can keep the world from changing too fast—they might lose power if things change too quickly.

2015 November 11

Not applying for that grant after all

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As long-time readers of my blog may know, I’ve given up on chasing grants (see Sabbatical Plans 2 and Sabbatical Leave Report), but I got sucked into planning to apply for NSF Engineering Education Program and Improving Undergraduate STEM Education/Professional Formation of Engineers’ RED Solicitation NSF 15-607, which would provide a minimum of $1,000,000 spread over 5 years to the lucky winner of the grant lottery for improving engineering education.  Because I have refocused my effort since my last sabbatical on improving education, this grant seemed like something worth some effort.

I was a little worried about it not being a lottery, but having an already targeted program that someone at NSF wanted to fund, as it had a very short timeline for putting together a rather complex grant, and somewhat bizarre requirements for the composition of the group applying for it:

The Principal Investigator(s) must be a department chair/head (or equivalent) to establish institutional accountability. Additionally, there must be a RED team that includes (at a minimum) an expert in engineering education or computer science education research, who can ground the research plan in the literature, and a social science expert who can evaluate department dynamics and monitor change processes. The social scientist must have expertise to advise on strategies for developing a culture of change and on strategies for creating meaningful collective ownership of the effort among faculty, students, and staff.

I was first informed of the existence of this program on 2015 Oct 7, by the engineering associate dean for undergraduates.  Apparently the deans of engineering schools had been informed of the program on 2015 Oct 5 by NSF, with letters of intent due on 2015 Nov 10, with each institution limited to 2 proposals.  I responded with cautious enthusiasm within an hour and a half, outlining what I’d like to see improved in the engineering program generally and why I thought that our Hispanic-Serving Institution was a good fit for the goals of the program to “educate inclusive communities of engineering and computer science students prepared to solve 21st-century challenges.”

I was willing to help write the grant, but I did not want to be the PI—not that I could anyway, as I’m a “Program Chair” but not a “Department Chair”—that means that I have to do all the catalog editing, curriculum revision, and responding to the administration about every bone-headed idea they come up with for education, but I have no resources and no carrots or sticks to get any other faculty to help me.

In my message to the faculty expressing interest, I detailed what I saw as the problems to address in the bioengineering program, some of which I felt were shared by other programs.

Another engineering faculty member (in a different department from mine) was in agreement with me, particularly on one point: “Students spend too much time getting book learning, and not enough time applying their knowledge to design problems.”  Our engineering programs have excellent senior capstone courses, but there is not enough design work in the first two years.  (Incidentally, this resonates well with a post that just came out today from a community college on the other side of the country.)

So within 2 hours of the associate dean asking if anyone was interested, the two of us agreed to work on it and see what we could come up with.  We both have heavy teaching loads this quarter, and he was working on several research proposals, so we did not manage to get together to talk for another nine days (Oct 16). We’d both done a fair amount of thinking independently before then, so we had a very productive meeting for an hour or two, finding that we had very similar ideas about the goals and complementary ideas about how to achieve them.

I got a couple of pages of notes out of that meeting: which courses needed to be expanded, which freshman and sophomore courses could feasibly have a greater design component, and how we could create and push courses back into the high schools to raise awareness of engineering among applicants (the other faculty member had already taught and recorded a summer course on robotics for high-school students that could be improved and adapted to be a “course-in-a-box” that could be taught by interested but not expert high-school teachers, and I would like to push my applied electronics course down to advanced high school level, though that would require some massive book rewrites).

The basic theme of our ideas was pretty straightforward (quoting from my notes on the Friday meeting):

The theme of the proposal is expanding hands-on project-based learning particularly in the majors Robotics Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Bioengineering (bioelectronics and assistive technology:motor concentrations).  Project-based learning has a good track record for increasing participation by women and under-represented minorities [citation needed].
The key concepts for the course and curriculum design are the following
  • System thinking: breaking into subproblems and well-defined interfaces
  • Trade-offs: most design decisions involve trading off one desirable feature for another
  • Documentation: the design needs to be thoroughly described in order to be maintainable or duplicable.

We concentrated on a part of the engineering program that already had a pretty good design component, trying to build from strength rather than trying to foment a revolution in programs that had very little design until the senior year.  Given the very short timeline (3.5 weeks to get a team together for the letter of intent), we did not think it wise to go for something unachievable, but rather to make a pretty good program exemplary.

Our next step was to see whether we could get a team together by the Nov 10 deadline for the letter of intent, so I started cold-calling (well, e-mailing) social scientists and education researchers on campus, trying to find people who would be suitable and interested. I’m not naturally a networker—I don’t remember people’s names or faces, and I don’t often go to social events where I run into new people, so I was having to rely on what I could find on the UCSC web pages and asking everyone for recommendations of whom to ask. I put in a fair amount of time looking through web pages and sending e-mail to strangers, asking for help.

Two weeks later (Oct 30), I managed to present the ideas of the proposal to a group consisting of one psychologist, three education researchers (one via a Skype connection that kept failing), and an EE teaching professor (who happened to be in the process of trying to improve the core EE course in the direction we were trying to move things).  The presentation must have seemed a bit bizarre to them, as it was the closest class day to Halloween, and I was dressed in a 15th-century houppelande, having just come from teaching my class.

After describing what we were trying to do and some lively discussion where the education researchers tried to figure out what NSF meant by their rather unusual team composition (not like any of the education research grants that they had ever participated in), I left with the EE professor eager to join the grant and the others saying they’d let me know.  By the next week, the psychologist (Nov 2) and the two best-fit education researchers (Nov 6) had agreed to join the team.

I had also had asked the dean’s office about the administrative support that had been promised in the original call for faculty interest, and got a rather minimal response (amounting to no more than the usual budget-writing support that tiniest research grants get—no grant writing support at all).

In the meantime (Nov. 5), another hurdle had arisen: the relevant department chair was not willing to be PI. Since we now had faculty from three different departments leading the grant, we tried convincing the dean to be the PI, but he’s stepping down at the end of the year, and did not feel that he could commit the incoming dean to whatever we were planning (Nov 9).  We made one more last-minute appeal to the department chair to let us file the letter of intent by the end of the day Nov 10, with the department chair still having veto power on submitting the final grant proposal, but were turned down.

So we’re not even getting a shot at the $1–2M lottery.  I suspect that many places that could have put together reasonable proposals will have had similar unsuccessful flurries of activity leading to not even being able to submit a letter of intent—the NSF request for proposals seemed deliberately structured to suppress applicants, leading me to suspect that there was a favored program somewhere that this whole charade had been set up to fund, or perhaps a few institutions with grant-writing machines already cranked up and ready to spew out whatever boilerplate NSF wanted.

The three of us faculty will go ahead and do what we can (without resources) to improve pedagogy in the engineering school, but the whole process has left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I’m feeling that not only did NSF not want proposals from us, but that the engineering administration didn’t want us applying for funding (which seems completely out of character for this university’s administration).

I think it is unlikely that I’ll go through that much effort again, just to be told that we can’t even file a letter of intent.  I’ve always hated grant writing, and I’d sworn off of research-grant writing a couple years ago as a completely unproductive use of my time.  Now it looks like I might swear off writing grant proposals for improving teaching also, as it seems to be even more painful and even less productive.

I would have been better off putting in the time revising another chapter of my book—at least there I can see progress when I can the time to work on it.

2014 December 28

Public univerisities as mass quality

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Chris Newfield, in Trends we can work with: Higher Ed in 2015 ~ Remaking the University, wrote

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality—mass access to top-quality teaching and cutting-edge research—that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It’s not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating new kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions. The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown—and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards—signaled to at least some faculty that it’s time to step up.

Chris Newfield, like me, teaches at the University of California (though he is on a different campus). I think we both see the University of California as having a combined mission: teaching and research at a very high level of quality and at a low price to the students. Unfortunately, high quality does not come at low cost, so the only way to achieve a low price is through subsidies. Because the public universities do not have the massive endowments and enormous philanthropic contributions that schools like Stanford get, the subsidies have to come from the state.

Unfortunately, our state politicians have been fooled into thinking that the University of California can be simultaneously controlled by the legislature and paid for by the students—thanks in large part to Regents who sincerely believe that unregulated markets are the best way to achieve everything.  As a result, the University of California has become much more expensive for students while having a lot less money for instructional purposes.  It’s been a slow process, played out over the past 20 years, but the UC educational experience has gradually been cheapened while becoming pricier.

The problem is not inefficiency on the part of the University or spiraling costs (see Cost of college remarkably stable), but simple cost shifting from public funding to student loans.  The legislature and the governors have given up education as a public good and decided to slowly privatize higher education in California. This is not a popular position with the people of California, so they disguise the moves and find ways to make the University look like the bad guys in raising tuition.

The University administration has been aiding and abetting this political movement to privatize the University, by raising tuition every opportunity they get and by paying their top executives ridiculously large salaries, while simultaneously treating the faculty and unionized workers worse and worse (health benefits are much worse now than when I joined UC 28 years ago; salaries are about the same, after correcting for inflation; and workloads are higher).  I think the UCOP (University of California Office of the President) made a particularly bad mis-step this year in the way that they raised tuition right after giving top executives pay raises—it made it look like they were just interested in lining their own pockets.  It would have been better to come out with a plan for lowering tuition while raising state contributions—then the legislature would be properly seen as the ones causing the problem, rather than offering the legislature an opportunity to look virtuous while cutting funding for the University.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that the UCOP executives have any interest in the University as a university—they certainly seem to pay much more attention to ways that they can extract money from it (like using the retirement funds for speculation on UC venture capital projects) than on education or research.  Neither UCOP nor the Regents listen to the faculty or the students, and I think that they have no idea what damage their self-centered decisions have already done to the University, much less what damage their most recent decisions will do.

2014 March 13

Suggestions for changes to biomed training

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Yesterday I attended a a discussion lead by Henry Bourne (retired from UCSF) about problems in the training system for biologists in the US.  His points are summarized fairly well in his article A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs and the two articles it cites that preceded it:

In a recent essay I drew attention to five axioms that have helped to make the biomedical research enterprise unsustainable in the US (Bourne, 2013a). This essay tackles, in detail, the dangerous consequences of one of these axioms: that the biomedical laboratory workforce should be largely made up of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, mostly supported by research project grants, with a relatively small number of principal investigators leading ever larger research groups. This axiom—trainees equal research workforce—drives a powerful feedback loop that undermines the sustainability of both training and research. Indeed, unless biomedical scientists, research institutions and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) act boldly to reform the biomedical research enterprise in the US, it is likely to destroy itself (Bourne, 2013b).

I’m basically in agreement with him that very long PhD+postdoc training current in biology in the US is fundamentally broken, and that the postdoc “holding tank” is not a sustainable system.

I also agree with him that one of the biggest problems in the system is paying for education through research grants. Grad student support should be provided directly, either as fellowships or training grants (I prefer individual fellowships like the NSF fellowships, he prefers training grants). By separating support for PhD training from research support, we can effectively eliminate the conflict of interest in which students are kept as cheap labor rather than being properly trained to become independent scientists (or encouraged to find a field that better fits their talents). By limiting the number of PhD students we can stop pumping more people into the postdoc holding tank faster than we can drain the tank by finding the postdocs real jobs.

I disagreed with one of his suggestions, though. He wants to see the PhD shrunk to an average of 4.5 years, followed by a 2–4-year postdoc. I’d rather keep the PhD at 6.5 years and eliminate the postdoc holding tank entirely. In engineering fields, researchers are hired into permanent positions immediately after their PhDs—postdoc positions are rare.  It is mainly because NIH makes hiring postdocs so very, very “cost-effective” that the huge postdoc holding tank has grown. If NIH changed their policies to eliminate support for postdocs on research grants, allowing only permanent staff to be paid, that would help quite a bit.

Draining the postdoc holding tank would probably take a decade or more even with rational policies, but current policies of universities and industry (only hiring people in bio after 6 years or more of postdoc) and of the NIH (providing generous funding for postdocs but little for permanent researchers) make the postdoc holding tank likely to grow rather than shrink.

He pointed out that NIH used to spend a much larger fraction of their funding on training students than they do now—they’ve practically abandoned education, in favor of a low-pay, no-job-security research workforce (grad students and postdocs).

A big part of the problem is that research groups have changed from being a professor working with a handful of students to huge groups with one PI and dozens of postdocs and grad students. Under the huge-group model, one PI needs to have many grants to keep the group going, so competition for research grant money is much fiercer, and there is much less diversity of research than under a small-group model.

The large-group model necessitates few PIs and many underlings, making it difficult for postdocs to move up to becoming independent scientists (there are few PI positions around), as well as making it difficult for new faculty to compete with grant-writing machines maintained by the large groups.

A simple solution would be for NIH to institute a policy that they will not fund any PI with more than 3 grants at time, and study sections should be told how much funding each PI has from grants, so that they can compare productivity to cost (they should also be told when grants expire, so that they can help PIs avoid gaps in funding that can shut down research).  The large groups would dissolve in a few years, as universities raced to create more PIs to keep the overhead money coming in.  The new positions would help drain the postdoc holding tank and increase the diversity of research being pursued.

Of course, the new positions would have to be real ones, not “soft-money” positions that have no more job security than a postdoc. NIH could help there too, by refusing to pay more than 30% of a PI’s salary out of Federal funds.

Of course, any rational way of spending the no-longer-growing NIH budget will result in some of the bloated research groups collapsing (mainly in med schools, which have become addicted to easy money and have built empires on “soft-money” positions).

I think that biology has been over-producing PhDs for decades—more than there are permanent positions for in industry and academia combined. That combined with the dubious quality of much of the PhD training (which has often been just indentured servitude in one lab, with no training in teaching or in subjects outside a very narrow focus on the needs of the PhD adviser’s lab), has resulted in a situation where a PhD in biology is not worth much—necessitating further training before the scientist is employable and providing a huge pool of postdoc “trainees”, many of whom will never become independent scientists.

Tightening the standards for admission to PhD programs and providing more rigorous coursework in the first two years of PhD training (rather than immediately shoving them into some PI’s lab) would help a lot in increasing the value of the PhD.

Unfortunately, I see our department going in the opposite direction—moving away from the engineering model of training people to be independent immediately after the PhD and towards a model where they are little more than hands in the PI’s labs (decreasing the required coursework, shrinking the lab rotations, and getting people into PI labs after only 2 quarters). I gave up being grad director for our department, because I was not willing to supervise this damage to the program, nor could I explain to students policies that I did not agree with.

One thing we are trying to do that I think is good is increasing the MS program, so that there is a pool of trained individuals able to take on important research tasks as permanent employees, rather than as long-term PhDs or postdocs. Again, the engineering fields have developed a much better model than the biomedical fields, with the working degree for most positions being the BS or MS, with only a few PhDs needed for academic positions and cutting-edge industrial research. Note that a PhD often has less actual coursework than an MS—PhD students have been expected to learn by floundering around in someone’s lab for an extra 5 years taking no courses and often not even going to research seminars, which is a rather slow way of developing skills and deadly to gaining a breadth of knowledge. Biotech companies would probably do well to stop hiring PhDs and postdocs for routine positions, and start hiring those with an MS in bioengineering instead.

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