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Preserving Research Quality

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 
212

Folks:

The provocative excerpt below on the importance of quality at

research universities is from the article, "Universities Change, Core

Values Should Not," by Robert M. Rosenzweig,appearing in your Winter

1999, Issues in Science and Technology On-Line. The full article can

be found at: http://www.nap.edu/issues/16.2/rosenzweig.htm My thanks

to Arun Tripathi for calling this excellent publication to my

attention.

Regards,

Rick Reis

Reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Learning to Play a Rigged Game

Tomorrow's Research

 

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PRESERVING RESEARCH QUALITY

Excerpt from:

Universities Change, Core Values Should Not,

by ROBERT M. ROSENZWEIG appearing in the

Winter 1999, Issues in Science and Technology On-Line.

 

Reprinted with permission

Among the foundation stones underlying the success of the U.S.

academic research

enterprise has been the following set of propositions: In supporting

research, betting on the best is far more likely to produce a quality

result than is settling for the next best. Although judgments are not

perfect, it is possible to identify with a fair degree of confidence

a well-conceived research program, to assess the ability of the

proposer to carry it out, and to discriminate in those respects among

competing proposers. Those judgments are most likely to be made well

by people who are themselves skilled in the fields under review.

Finally, although other sets of criteria or methods of review will

lead to the support of some good research, the overall level of

quality will be lower because considerations other than quality will

be weighed more heavily in funding decisions.

It is remarkable how powerful those propositions have been and, until

recently, how widely they were accepted by decision makers and their

political masters. To see that, it is only necessary to contrast

research funding practices with those in other areas of government

patronage, where the decimal points in complicated formulas for

distributing money in a politically balanced manner are fought over

with fierce determination. Reliance on the system of peer review (for

which the politically correct term is now "merit review") has enabled

universities to bring together aggregations of top talent with

reasonable confidence that research funding for them will be

forthcoming because it will not be undercut by allocations based on

some other criteria.

Notwithstanding the manifest success of the principle that research

funding should be based on research quality, the system has always

been vulnerable to what might be called the "Lake Woebegone Effect":

the belief that all U.S. universities and their faculty are above

average, or that given a fair chance would become so. That

understandable, and in some respects even admirable, belief has

always led to pressures to distribute research support more broadly

on a geographic (or more accurately, political-constituency) basis.

These pressures have tended to be accommodated at the margins of the

system, leaving the core practice largely untouched.

Since it remains true that the quality of the proposal and the record

and promise of the proposer are the best predictors of prospective

scientific value, there is reason to be concerned that university

administrators, faculty, and members of Congress are increasingly

departing from practices based on that proposition. The basis for

that concern lies in the extent to which universities have leaped

into the appropriations pork barrel in an effort to obtain funds for

research and research facilities that is based not on an evaluation

of the comparative merits of the project for which they seek funds

but on the ability of their congressional representatives to

manipulate the appropriations process on their behalf. In little more

than a decade, the practice of earmarking appropriations has grown

from a marginal activity conducted around the fringes of the

university world to an important source of funds. A record $787

million was appropriated in that way in fiscal year 1999. In the past

decade, a total of $5.8 billion was given out directly by Congress

with no evaluation more rigorous than the testimony of institutional

lobbyists. Most of this largesse was directed to research and

research-related projects. Even in Washington, those numbers approach

real money.

More important than the money, though, is what this development says

about how pressures to get in or stay in the research game have

changed the way in which faculty and administrators view the nature

of that game. The change can be seen in the behavior of members of

the Association of American Universities (AAU), which includes the 61

major research universities. In 1983, when two AAU members won

earmarked appropriations, the association voted overwhelmingly to

oppose the practice and urged universities and members of Congress

not to engage in it. If a vote were taken today to reaffirm that

policy, it is not clear that it would gain support from a majority of

the members. Since 1983, an increasing number of AAU members have

benefited from earmarks, and for that reason it is unlikely that the

issue will be raised again in AAU councils.

Even in some of the best and most successful universities there is a

sense of being engaged in a fierce and desperate competition. The

pressure to compete may come from a need for institutional or

personal aggrandizement, from demands that the institution produce

the economic benefits that research is supposed to bring to the local

area, or those and other reasons combined. The result, whatever the

reasons, has been a growing conclusion that however nice the old ways

may have been, new circumstances have produced the need for a new set

of rules.

At the present moment, we are still at an early stage in a movement

toward the academic equivalent of the tragedy of the commons. It is

still possible for each

institution that seeks to evade the peer review process to believe

that its cow can graze on the commons without harm to the general

good. As the practice becomes more widespread, the commons will lose

its value to all. Although the current signs are not hopeful, the

worst outcome is not inevitable. The behavior of faculty and their

administrations in supporting or undermining a research allocation

system based on informed judgments of quality will determine the

outcome and will shape the nature of our universities in the decades

ahead.

There are other ways of looking at the future of our universities

than the three I have emphasized here. Much has been written, for

example, about the effects of the Internet and of distance education

on the future of the physical university. Much of this speculation

seems to me to be overheated; more hype than hypothesis. No doubt

universities will change in order to adapt to new technologies, as

they have changed in the past, but it seems to me unlikely that a

virtual Harvard will replace the real thing, however devoutly its

competitors might wish it so. The future of U.S. universities, the

payoff that makes them worth their enormous cost, will continue to be

determined by the extent to which they are faithful to the values

that have always lain at their core. At the moment, and in the years

immediately ahead, those values will be most severely tested by the

three matters most urgently on today's agenda.

-------------------

Robert M. Rosenzweig (robertr@ispchannel.com) was president of the

American Association of Universities from 1983 to 1993 and is the

author of The Political University: Policy, Politics, and

Presidential Leadership in the American Research University (Johns

Hopkins University Press, 1998).