The Research Crisis in Higher Ed

Mark Edwards

The modern American research university is in crisis. Perverse rewards and incentives create an unhealthy “hyper-competition” among research scientists and encourage unethical behavior that can lead to bad science. So say Mark A. Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor best known for exposing the high levels of lead in the water in Flint, Mich., and Siddhartha Roy, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech.

“If the practice of science should ever undermine the trust and symbiotic relationship with society that allowed both to flourish, our ability to solve critical problems facing humankind and civilization itself will be at risk,” they warn in a paper, “Science Is Broken,” in the digital publication Aeon. The Aeon article is abridged from a longer paper published in Environmental Engineering Science.

The pursuit of tenure influences almost the priorities and decisions of young faculty at research universities, write the authors. Recent changes in academia, including increased emphasis on quantitative performance metrics, “harsh competition” for federal funding, and implementation of “private business models” at public and private universities are producing undesirable outcomes and unintended consequences.

Some examples of unintended consequences:

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased number of publications.
Intended effect: Improve research productivity, provide a means of evaluating performance.
Actual effect: Avalanche of substandard, incremental papers, poor methods, and increase in false discovery rates.

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased number of citations.
Intended effect: Reward quality work that influences others.
Actual effect: Extended reference lists to inflate citations; reviewers’ request citation of their work via peer review.

Incentive: Researchers rewarded for increased grant funding.
Intended effect: Ensure that research programs are funded, promote growth, generate overhead.
Actual effect: Increased time writing proposals and less time gathering and thinking about data. Overselling positive results and downplay of negative results.

Incentive: Reduced teaching load for research-active faculty.
Intended effect: Necessary to pursue additional competitive grants.
Actual effect: Increased demand for untenured, adjunct faculty to teach classes.

The list goes on.

The traditional university culture relied more extensively upon the “old boy network” for hiring and advancing tenure-track professors. That system lent itself to criticism for bias against women and minorities. But Edwards and Roy say that the quantitative-metric approach has created a new set of abuses. “All these measures are subject to manipulation as per Goodhart’s law, which states, When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. The quantitative metrics can therefore be misleading and ultimately counterproductive to assessing scientific research.”

Edwards and Roy also find fault with the way federal research grants are handed out. “The grant environment,” they write, “is hypercompetitive, susceptible to reviewer biases, skewed towards funding agencies’ research agendas, and strongly dependent on prior success as measured by quantitative metrics. … These broad changes take valuable time and resources away from scientific discovery and translation, compelling researchers to spend inordinate amounts of time constantly chasing grant proposals and filling out increasing paperwork for grant compliance.”

Most concerning of all:

There is growing evidence that today’s research publications too frequently suffer from lack of replicability, rely on biased data-sets, apply low or sub-standard statistical methods, fail to guard against researcher biases, and overhype their findings.

Science is expected to be self-policing and self-correcting. But incentives induce stakeholders to “pretend misconduct does not happen.” There is no clear mechanism for reporting and investigating allegations of research misconduct.

The system “presents a real threat to the future of science,” they say. Academia is at risk of creating a “corrupt professional culture” akin to the doping scandal in professional cycling in which athletes felt they had to cheat to compete. “We can no longer afford to pretend that the problem of research misconduct does not exist.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The inability to replicate results from many scientific studies is widely acknowledged to be a real problem. Likewise, the risk is very real that the public could lose faith in science, especially when scientific research intersects with public policy. The idea that government agencies favor and fund research projects that bolster their policy agendas — admittedly, a minor point in the Edwards-Roy essay — is a phenomenon that should concern all Americans.

As research scientists, the authors are most concerned with how the system impacts upon the integrity of the scientific process and the advancement of tenure-track faculty. But their thoughts raise issues of interest to non-scientists who focus on cost and quality issues in higher education. The perverse incentives, along with the research university business model, have virtually severed top faculty from the task of teaching undergraduate students. Universities hire more subalterns — at extra cost –to handle the job of teaching. From the perspective of students and parents, superstar research faculty are superfluous overhead.

An important question left unanswered is the extent to which students and parents are funding this dysfunctional system through their tuition. How much tuition revenue goes to supporting this massively inefficient research edifice in which an increase share of faculty time is spent applying for grants? Perhaps none at all. But perhaps quite a lot. The public doesn’t know. It’s entirely possible that university administrations don’t either — higher-ed accounting could be more transparent. As students, parents and taxpayers, we should insist upon finding out.

(Hat tip: Reed Fawell)

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6 responses to “The Research Crisis in Higher Ed

  1. Don’t such “incentives” influence on a fairly wide basis beyond Research in Universities?

    You have folks who cheat in virtually all endeavors.

    The guy who got a job with false credentials..

    The product made of inferior or even dangerous ingredients.

    The folks who swipe stuff off of shelves in WalMarts..

    The Doctor who prescribes a drug that give him kickbacks…

    The doctor cheats Medicare…

    The politician taking money …

    The Sec of health and human services taking charter plane trips

    etc, etc, etc.. the world is full of folks who did wrong and had good excuses for their bad behaviors.

    I see these kinds of incentives and temptations all throughout society..

    I’m not discounting or diminishing it … it’s wrong..but it’s not just Research.

    There are folks who, despite the incentives and temptations – are honest and do the right thing. There are thousands and thousands of Higher-Ed researchers that despite the pressures – do maintain their integrity and refuse to be pushed into wrong behaviors.

    In a way – talking about “incentives” to do wrong almost sounds like a justification for it.. that’s it’s really not the fault of the person doing it because they were “pressured” into doing it.. that “excuse” mentality.

    For decades the old higher ed adage was “publish or perish” with the implication that to gain tenure – you had to publish “something” and the “something” was more important than the content or quality as long as it was “something”.

  2. I loved teaching but quit my tenured position in a well-known university because the research took too much time from teaching. I was told that publishing was necessary because all faculty members are equally good teachers. Although my expertise as a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering was acknowledged by my consulting clients, the committee of 28 people who decided my raises refused to include consulting. So it was research or nothing. I chose nothing. For the many years I worked in industry, I have found few modern university researchers who did significant work. Many are influenced by the politically motivated caches of money. The cure is to stop government funding of university research. Let industry grants fund the research. Let the teachers teach. Researchers usually make poor teachers.

    • Fred –

      Thank you for your comment. Most all that I have read on the subject validates your experience. The assertions, concerns and claims expressed in the article “Science Is Broken” by the Distinguished Virginia Tech Professor, and the scholarly study (some 49 pages as I recalled) that underpins the article, also validate and elaborate on the points you raise.

      This includes some astounding statistics and findings that would alarm any serious reader. One common refrain however is that the great majority of truly productive and/or promising “STEM researchers” leave the academy, if only because they are serious about their work, and refuse to compromise it.

      This result, and sad state of affairs, should be obvious to all serious people. Education and business, if mixed together and funded with public moneys, without accountability, will inevitable destroy both.

      But we have far more than a simple scam and fraud at play. Here too we have built and now tolerate, indeed feed taxpayer money, into a system so corrupt that it threatens science itself, the very discipline and infrastructure, that we critically need to produce good science and its benefits.

      But that is only the half of it. The system is also actively destroying our children’s chance for a proper education. This too is validated by this article and study, although here much of the damage is being done by fraudulent academic research in the Arts, Humanities, and professional schools, and the classroom course that bonus research produces, that ends up in the heads, hearts and minds of our kids.

      • Correction to end of last paragraph above;

        … and the classroom courses that bogus academic research produces, fraudulent work product that too often ends up in the heads, hearts and minds of our students.

  3. re: ” The cure is to stop government funding of university research. Let industry grants fund the research.”

    not sure why industry would be any better.. it’s the money – right?

    My two cents. I can see at Research Universities that the primary metric is Research – but I would also suspect (perhaps wrongly) that at Universities that are not big in Research that teaching is the primary metric.

    Again – I don’t dispute the bad behaviors – neither the higher ups that force publishing nor the ones subject to being forced to publish – and put out a bad product.

    I worked for 34 years where I had both good bosses who wanted the work done right – and bad bosses who wanted dishonest behavior he could direct and when you would not do it – there were consequences not good for you.

    You have to stand up for yourself and be wiling to get hurt by standing up for the right thing.

    It’s just too bad there are no shortage of folks who don’t have scruples and will victimize others if they can… it’s the gig in life.. We should be so lucky to work for someone we highly respect and do work we consider that is quality and a contribution .. but life is not always that way. We take the cards we are dealt…

  4. President and Five Star General Dwight Eisenhower reminded us of the risks of the Military-Industrial Complex. So why shouldn’t we worry about any “industry” that gets in bed with government?

    There needs to be checks and balances. Internal and outside oversight. A number of years ago, responding to community pressure, the Fairfax County BoS established a small auditor’s office that does not report to the county executive, but only to the BoS. It’s uncovered some problems over the years. On the other hand, the Fairfax County School Board fought the community for years against an auditor that did not report to the superintendent. That tells me a lot.

    And at the risk of riling up Peter, we also have a Media-Government Complex that promotes each other’s actions.

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