Marc Edwards, civil-engineering professor at Virginia Tech and driving force behind the research that revealed the high lead levels in the water system in Flint, Michigan, gave a great interview to the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has a number of fantastic, and terrifying, things to say about the culture of academic science.
I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.
But, of course, it’s not just young faculty (although it is definitely worse for them). This is directly related to the lie that we always repeat about tenure. The premise of tenure, of course, is that once you’ve proven yourself, you get job security, which provides intellectual freedom. Once you have tenure, you’re supposed to be able to pursue your research, even if it is controversial or unpopular. And in certain fields that may be more or less true.
But in the sciences, it’s definitely less, partly due to a different treadmill. You need money to do science, and you need scientific results to get money. It is an open secret that most funded NIH proposals are for work that has largely already been done. The researchers then use the money to do the research that will go into the next proposal. But if you have a gap in funding, it is harder to get those results. An extended gap means that your lab shrinks, you may have to take on additional teaching, and you may even lose lab space — putting you in a hole that’s hard to get out of. Which is to say, securing research funding is like being in a relationship with Lindsey Buckingham: if you don’t fund me now, you will never fund me again.
That dynamic contributes to the passive acceptance of corruption by scientists, mainly by making them risk averse. In my experience, most academics want to do the right thing. It’s just that doing the right thing often comes at a cost that few are willing to pay. And, viewed from a certain perspective, they may be right.
When you’re a grad student, you’re told that tenure is the goal, that once you get it, you’re set. What you’re not told is that there are elaborate systems of carrots and sticks all the way up the hierarchy. Critics of the Platonic ideal of tenure will tell you that these incentives are necessary to deal with the accumulation of “dead wood”. And everyone has stories of the worthless professor who got tenure and then quit working altogether. Defenses of the erosion of tenure tend to sound a lot like defenses of mass surveillance: if you keep doing good work, you’ve got nothing to worry about!
But one of the lessons of the Flint water crisis is this: any system of rewards and punishments can be captured and put to work towards corrupt ends. You build a system to punish people for not working hard enough, and someone will figure out how to use that system to make people fearful enough of punishment that they are unwilling to question or criticize authority.
Yes, encouraging people to fight for more and more funding does make them work harder, but if none of them are willing to ask the important questions, what’s the point?