Can academic pursuits and money not go hand-in-hand?

This month’s C & EN editorial by Allen J. Bard argues that ‘the culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money raised.’

Allen goes on to note that ‘I’ve been to party to tenure discussions that have centred on “scoring two major grants” rather than on the quality of work.’ What is more worrying is that, ‘the fact is that the final decision to fund really comes from the project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the mouth’.

He also points out that this has led the universities to focus on demonstrating the ‘economical value’ of the research and their ‘critical mission’ becomes getting more intellectual property (IP) or start-up companies. He concludes by saying, ‘If working closely with students and doing long-term fundamental research is not the goal and money is the important thing, there are more lucrative professions than academic ones for them to pursue.’

If it is true that academics spend 70% of their time writing research proposals then I do agree that Allen has raised some very valid points. But I can’t seem to agree with him that academics should be a pursuit devoid of money.

I think if it’s possible to be an academic who is good at commercialising ideas then one should be. All those monetary benefits of IP that come along with it are a good thing for a university, especially in the economic climate that we are in, where we face major cuts to research spending and increased tuition fees.

Also blaming this capitalistic view of a university for not being able to attract the right talent isn’t right. Academics tend to believe that all the people who do research do it because of the love of the subject and nothing else. Well, they might, but more often than not they may have other reasons. In that respect, the fact that an academic pursuit can lead to a good commercial idea, may actually lure more people than just the subject nerds.

And yet, I cannot agree more that it shouldn’t become the ‘critical mission’ of a university. It may have happened that universities started small, trying to align with the capitalistic nature of the market, by asking academics to ‘think about’ commercialising ideas and over the years reached the point, that they have now, where it has become their ‘main aim’.

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