Saturday, April 02, 2005

The role of the university in the current funding crisis

When writing a post, it often happens that I have too many thoughts to fit into what is conventionally a short note format. Further reflection on my post about funding led to this:

Although it is not clear that the dot-com bust had anything to do with increased submission rates to conferences/funding agencies, it is fair to say that the dot-com boom had a lot to do with this.
I recall that in the late 90s and early 00s, universities were desperately trying to increase the sizes of their CS departments, allegedly in response to increased undergradate enrollment and the consequent increased demand for teachers.

Needless to say, when you hire tenure-track professors, you get more teaching, but you get a heck of a lot more research, as you have more slaves running the tenure treadmill as fast their legs can go. That inevitably leads to more submissions to conferences and more requests for money.

But tenure-track jobs often lead to tenure, i.e permanent jobs. These professors are not likely to stop publishing and stop requesting funding, but the underlying supply of students appears to be drying up (at least at the graduate level, though probably not at the undergraduate level). What happens then ?

This appears reminiscient of what has happened in biology. The PCR revolution led to an explosion in the number of researchers in biology and genetics. The NIH has historically been generous in funding graduate work in biology. However, funding for PIs and post-docs is far more scarce, creating a supply-demand bottleneck that means long years toiling at postdocs for ever elusive faculty jobs.

In computer science, we are far from that, also because industry jobs are to an extent still a viable option for researchers. But as industrial research labs cut back, and funding for basic research dries up, we could easily be facing the same kind of funding crises that biology faces today. And to draw another lesson from biology, what is true for rats is true for humans: as resources dwindle, organisms become more ferocious towards each other. if you think your grant reviews were harsh before, watch out !
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