There's a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that I always enjoyed.
A mob brings a woman before Sir Bedevere the Wise, claiming that she is a witch and they want to burn her. The knight leads them through a chain of “logic” about how to determine if she really is a witch. If witches burn, they must be made of wood. If wood floats, it must weigh the same as a duck. So, if the woman weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch. I can't remember all the details, but the woman is “proven” to be a witch, and the mob gets its way, ostensibly backed by science.
For an organic chemist working in academe, it is a twofer: a hilarious send-up both of the Socratic method and scientific reasoning.
What brings this bit of comedy to mind is something a good deal less droll: the pervasive spurning of science, the misapplication of the scientific method and the rebuff of fact-based decision making in our own national discourse.
At the risk of engaging in some unscientific generalizations myself, I would posit that it is unusual to see scientists organizing a march -- as they have for this weekend, in Washington, D.C. Scientists are prone to cautiousness and dispassion, and we prefer our facts, logic and discourse served cold. We are not naturally suited to posting ourselves at the barricades.
I am no less a product of my training than my fellow scientists. In my youth, like many people, I variously protested the Vietnam War or cuts in social funding. But in the years since, as I have pursued teaching and research, my energies have been focused in the lab. So why, after all that time, am I marching tomorrow?
Because we seem to be at an unusual point in my four decades as a working scientist: a moment where respect for the scientific tradition is ebbing, and recognition of all that our investment in science has produced is fading.
Through its methods and its ceaseless cycle of questions posed and answers sought, science has brought us so many gifts. Vaccines and therapeutics have saved millions of lives and spared incalculable misery and debilitation. Technological innovations have sustained the United States’ economic leadership. Advances in digital technologies and telecommunications have enabled wondrous access to knowledge and communication. Technologies have kept our nation more secure. And all of this in addition to those purest of scientific quests: the exploration of the cosmos, the probing of the fundamental laws and elements of nature, and the understanding of life’s basic biological processes.
In spite of all this, American science is confronting pointed challenges.
First, dramatic cuts to science funding agencies are proposed in the federal budget. I understand the pressures of a budget -- saving money is as much on the mind of a college president as on that of a U.S. president.
However, these budget cuts stand out for their unwise ratio of short-term savings and long-term harm. This disinvestment could well cost the United States its long-held position at the forefront of science. The cuts will deprive us of our edge in scientific innovation, which has propelled our economy time and again. And in combination with new immigration policies, we may be sacrificing the next generation of scientific talent.
Second, less tangibly but more fundamentally, there is diminishing respect for how science has benefited our national approach to problem solving.
Science hasn't just brought us great discoveries and technological achievements; it has also, importantly, brought us a better way of thinking through our challenges: fact-based discussion and evidence-based decision making. Both modern democracy and modern science emerged from the Enlightenment, and science has been a beneficial companion to our democratic policy making in the centuries since.
Yet today, respect for that evidence-based approach to dialogue is waning. Whether on the issue of vaccines or climate change or a number of others, the growing disconnect between evidence and policy making -- coming, contradictorily, against the backdrop of increasing calls for STEM education -- demonstrates the erosion of trust in scientific reasoning.
As Walter Isaacson neatly said in his wonderful biography of Albert Einstein, “What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories.” Far more than a particular set of academic disciplines, science -- and the scientific method -- is a habit of mind.
I don't think our national scientific enterprise is going to end up looking like a Monty Python script. But the confluence of severe budget cuts in the sciences, growing disrespect for scientific evidence, increasing disregard for evidence-based decision making and policy making, and new immigration restrictions on the movement of students, scholars and researchers present an unusually perilous moment.
And that's what brings this scientist -- as reserved, cautious in my claims and prone to objectivity as anyone in my profession -- to Washington to march tomorrow alongside my students and my colleagues.
Andrew Hamilton is president of New York University, a professor of chemistry and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
This country’s public universities face the Trump administration in a weakened condition. That is partly because they have suffered years of state funding cuts and still aren’t back to pre-2008 levels. But it’s also because they have long embraced a private-funding model that doesn’t work and whose weaknesses Trump and his people can exploit.
A painful example is the proposed 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, which Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has contended would not hurt research, as it would mostly focus on cutting back on overhead expenses to universities. An 18 percent budget slash sounds catastrophic -- until you remember that companies take these kinds of hits and survive. So do American families, where illness or job loss lead to cuts far greater than that.
The same goes for public universities: few have not had a cut on that scale sometime in the past 25 years, and still fewer have admitted that such losses hurt educational quality. Since universities survived the financial crisis with little damage -- that they have disclosed -- what would keep the citizenry awake at night about an 18 percent cut for medical research?
Research directors reply that it would be terrible indeed: National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, for example, has said the proposed cuts endanger the economy, since “half of our present GDP is due to investments in science and technology.” Researchers have noted that the current funding austerity already appears in the form of the declining average success rate for grant applications, which has been cut nearly in half since 2001, from 27 percent to 16 percent. Four in five applications go unfunded, with presumably valuable results to medical knowledge possibly lost.
Such arguments might work if voters thought science needed public funding to get to the public. But the unfortunate fact is that they have been taught otherwise for many years. Universities have taught politicians and the voters at large that they can and will deal with 5 percent, 10 percent or 20 percent public-funding cuts by finding alternative revenue streams, nearly all of which are private. Universities have asked people to marvel at their entrepreneurial prowess: they have raised tuition beyond inflation for decades, sought private donations, formed research partnerships, subsidized tech start-ups, outsourced room and board, built new buildings with promises of future lease revenue from private firms, and so on. Yes, cuts are a shame, universities seem to say, but we have liberated our inner Zuckerberg, and the public cuts haven’t hurt our excellence at all!
To take one example, Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California, said during the financial crisis that while they struggled to pay salaries in English and sociology, the “medical business” was doing just fine. Such statements told the world that the public-good educational core lost money while edu-business meant profits. This undermined the voters’ understanding of the special role that public funding plays in public-good activities like teaching and research, in which few of the benefits can be captured as profits by the institution. Adding to the confusion, university officials insisted that their public mission remained as healthy as ever.
Universities thus arrive at the Mar-a-Lago policy house with a confusing mixed message: we do the public good with private money. This confusion is now haunting NIH research. Since medicine is the icon of knowledge transformed into business, why shouldn’t we cut NIH tax support and make big pharma -- that is, its long-suffering customers -- pay for research? If your arthritis meds cost you $3,000 per month, why should you pay taxes on top for research?
In short, the public university’s first private-sector lesson is that private funding serves the public interest as well as public funding. And the logical response is, great, let the public interest be defined by what the private consumer is willing to pay.
The second post-public principle is that the value of knowledge is its market value and can be measured as a return on investment. Although most academics would deny this in theory, universities adhere to it as a theory in use. Higher education institutions have become reliant on return-on-investment arguments to recruit students, and the science establishment, though aware that fundamental science takes decades to pay off economically, constantly dangles large gross research revenues, patent royalties, start-up ventures and trillion-dollar markets in front of the policy makers who allocate funds. Universities and policy officials have taught the political world that science has value because it will generate a positive market return. ROI calculations are used to cut through complicated expert beliefs in scientific use value, intellectual merit and long-term benefits to society.
This view was taken to its logical conclusion for me one day in 2004, when a young engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, announced to our statewide science policy committee, “If a project can’t get corporate sponsorship, it’s probably not good enough to be funded by a federal agency.” That statement ignored the analytical distinction between a public agency funding research for public benefit and a business funding research for its own ROI. When he collapsed public into private, the engineer claimed that, for policy purposes, all good science will have a positive ROI and quality can be measured by pecuniary returns.
Again, few people would accept such claim as economic theory, and economists like Kenneth Arrow and Richard Nelson discredited it in the 1950s. But politics yokes false yet expedient claims to powerful interests to generate practices that act as though intellectual value can be measured as market value. The prestige of market forces, working with misinformation from universities, has kept generations of political and business leaders from inquiring further. Hence, most nonacademics assume that if a university laboratory is doing good science then it is making money, and plenty of it.
The Achilles’ Heel
Enter HHS Secretary Price, who looked at medical research and asked “whether indeed we can get a larger return for the American taxpayer.” That is an entirely appropriate question within our private-sector paradigm of public knowledge, since that treats public funding like private funding and judges it by pecuniary returns.
Price went straight for the Achilles’ heel of the whole operation: “I was struck by one thing at NIH,” he said, “and that is that about 30 percent of the grant money that goes out is used for indirect expenses, which as you know means that that money goes for something other than the research that’s being done.”
On the theory that universities are grossing huge research revenues, this 30 percent spending on peripherals was like bonus pay. All the proposed cuts would mean, then, is that NIH will reduce university profits. Federal dollars will go farther, the taxpayer saves, and universities just have less NIH money to spend on their favorite stuff.
Fine, except for one thing: universities lose money on IDC payments, which don't cover costs. And universities, instead of bragging that their research losses are a donation to the welfare of humanity, have covered them up for decades.
Indirect costs are infrastructure, not gravy that gets spread around. They cover the facilities and administration that support the specific research, which could not take place without the general staff, buildings, utilities and everything else that houses the research. All this costs more than any collection of research sponsors want to pay, even over many years. So universities lose money on indirect costs paid by NIH and every other sponsor under the sun.
Universities on average pay over 20 cents of their own institutional funds to support every dollar of research. A Nature study confirmed a large gap between calculated need and actual reimbursements: “The average negotiated rate is 53 percent, and the average reimbursed rate is 34 percent” -- a difference of nearly 20 points. Two hundred million dollars of research expenditures at a good-size research university costs that university $40 million of its own money, which it mostly gets from student tuition and state funds.
Even the most successful, best-compensated universities in the country have some version of this problem. “We lose money on every piece of research that we do,” comments Maria Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has negotiated an IDC rate of 56 percent. Were MIT to keep grossing around $500 million in federal grant income, and all federal agencies came to imitate the Price practice of zero IDC funding, MIT would need to come up with an additional $150 million of its own money (to replace the 30 percent average of cut IDC funds) -- just to keep losing what it already loses on federal research.
Price’s policy would be a financial disaster for research universities: they would need to cut the amount of research that they can support, which would wreak havoc on the production of knowledge and on scientific personnel. It would deepen the existing fear that a generation of scientists is already imperiled by inadequate funding. It would force universities to take even more money from students and from faculty in disciplines without large extramural grants. Parts of an already unstable research ecosystem could collapse.
Cutting Our Losses
Although we can and must condemn Price’s cynical, destructive proposal, we need to face the fact that universities have set themselves up. They have treated research costs as a trade secret: neither faculty members, nor well-intentioned legislators, nor the public know that science loses money for universities, or how much. The Nature study got its data only through Freedom of Information Act requests. I had the same experience while doing my own research, which is that public universities treat actual reimbursement rates and IDC spending in the same way that private businesses do -- as proprietary.
Why do universities not disclose financial information that would improve their case for stable or even increased funding? Custom and fear of backlash play their roles. But the decisive factor is the private-sector framework. University officials now treat research as a business activity that is managed as though it were commercially sensitive and should run in the black. They do not want to disclose their large and routine outlays to cover shortfalls on that research, since in a private-sector model such losses signal failure. In addition, the biggest percentage losses come from private foundations and corporate partners that often bring the most prestige. Universities are caught in a privatization trap that they built themselves, and that will be difficult to take apart.
But take it apart they must, and the good news is that research losses can be cut. A fuller program can be found in my new book, The Great Mistake, but the elements can be summarized.
First, universities must go beyond current reporting categories to analyze and disclose how they use indirect cost funds. That disclosure will fan suspicion and resentment into anger and recrimination. But that is normal when issues that have been removed from the political life of a community are reinstated, and various grievances will need to be worked through. Such a move will tax the political skills of university administrations, but until disclosure and discussion occur, most people -- from Tom Price to academic scientists -- will continue to assume that much IDC feathers nests far from the laboratory and can be cut.
Second, universities must admit that the old deal on research funding was ended by state cuts, and then ask for a new deal. They must ask for full coverage of indirect costs. That means going in the opposite direction of Secretary Price and demanding that sponsors stop expecting universities to subsidize them with less money than they used to have that they must increasingly extract from undergraduates. Universities need to start making the full ask to partners, as Price is now doing to them.
Most important, universities need to embrace the public-good definition of research and higher education that turns private losses into public gains. Universities lose money on research in order to benefit the entire society. Since the whole state gains from a great medical center and museum and sociology department’s expertise on racial stratification, the whole state is legitimately asked to pay for it through taxes.
Universities have tried the soft privatization of revenues. That has failed to stabilize university finances and miseducated people about the nonmarket and social value of the university. Universities have also squandered the philosophical and social foundation of their public benefits and lost much general goodwill. But it is not too late to get it back -- starting with the re-education of Tom Price.
Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
President Trump’s executive orders, seeking to temporarily stop immigration from several majority-Muslim countries, continue to generate uncertainty for tens of thousands of international students and scholars. Meanwhile, a recent national survey of over 250 U.S. colleges reported that almost 40 percent are experiencing declines in international student applications. The spillover effects of such a potentially major drop in international student enrollment would be significant, including declines in international contributions to the U.S. economy ($33 billion in 2015-16), as well as university revenue (more than half of the increased revenue for some universities).
Such income loss could potentially lead to an increase in local tuition, given many universities’ financial reliance on international student tuition and fees to subsidize their operations. Numerous university leaders, associations and faculty groups have also openly condemned the president’s travel ban for unjustly disrupting the lives of countless internationals as well as on broader moral grounds.
While the attempted revocation of visas based on one’s citizenship continues to make headlines, it is hardly an isolated issue. Regardless of whether the travel ban is upheld, international students and scholars felt unwelcome long before the 2016 presidential election. The difference now is that anti-immigrant sentiments are becoming part of the mainstream discourse. The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and proposals, with phrases such as “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” have been entrenched in protectionist ideology that received considerable voter support. Such political agendas raise critically important questions in light of the historical mission of higher education in the United States to serve the public good, namely: Who will constitute the “public” in this new era? And what “good” can higher education potentially transform?
Public Nationalism and Isolationism
There are many potential hazards when the public good is narrowly constrained to the interests of the nation-state. The resurgent political slogan “America First,” which has emphasized patriotism at the expense of other countries, assumes that there are winners and losers within this national pursuit of the public good. Such a protectionist version of the public good, however seemingly virtuous, can too easily veer from blind patriotism to national supremacy.
Academe is not immune from such isolationist tendencies, as demonstrated by the fact that most higher education research articles are written by scholars in the United States about the United States -- even while the publication audience is increasingly international. Moreover, the nation is less and less the epicenter of knowledge creation and dissemination, with a surge of scholarly papers and patents originating in China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, to list a few. Countries are more interconnected now than ever before, in what is now commonly referred to as the global society. In short, the United States has far more to lose than gain by restricting higher education agendas, partnerships and students to the domestic level.
Those of us in higher education might take a second look in trying to identify some of our potential blind spots, which include:
Limiting the “public good” to the privileged. U.S. students’ entry to college and their all too narrowly defined “success” (i.e., graduation) in it are among the most commonly researched and funded areas in higher education in this country. They have become almost synonymous with what we think of as our public-good mission. But, while college degree attainment is certainly important, this limited association may overshadow larger global realities.
The fact is that, from a broader view, anyone who enters any form of U.S. higher education is privileged compared to most other people in the world. Access to education is arguably a human right, but it is not even a remote possibility for the hundreds of millions of people outside the country who are struggling with extreme poverty, forced displacement, lack of safety and other conditions that would make any college campus in the United States a safe refuge.
The World Bank estimates that more than 800 million people, well over double the population of the United States, survive with less than $2 a day. Is the current U.S. higher education notion of the public good a luxury that makes invisible those who struggle to even enter secondary education?
Supply-side economists may argue that higher education has potential indirect benefits for the poor. But the inequalities in places outside the United States are so vast that educational mobility is not a hopeful promise -- it’s more like a winning lottery ticket with insurmountable odds.
My point is not to minimize the very real challenges within this country, especially for low-income and minoritized U.S. college students. Rather, it is to address why it is so important to broaden our view of “public” to those who are not citizens, including not only undocumented residents but also those living outside our national borders, and to consider the broader global context that higher education has the potential to transform.
Otherwise, higher education teaching and research fails in its obligation to address wider national and international societal concerns. Whom we educate and what we research can -- and should -- be more directly linked to poverty, safety and security and intergroup relations that apply more globally, for example.
Neglecting neocolonial consequences. Defining the public beyond the nation-state is not just an appeal for inclusion but also a moral responsibility. Do our national interests, sometimes framed as the public good, lead to “public bad” for other countries? Narrowing the public good to that which falls within U.S. borders has the danger of becoming exclusionary and reinforcing neocolonialism globally. Is a winner-take-all approach consistent with our notion of the public good?
Those involved in higher education can claim to be proponents of the public good -- committing one’s practices and research in ways that promote justice, equity and improved well-being for the nation-state -- but, at the same time, unknowingly perpetuate global inequalities or leave them unchanged. For example, the dominance of the English language in the global knowledge society, the hegemonic criteria in determining and reinforcing national and international university rankings, and the country location of world-class universities and top academic publishers, all of which highly favor the United States, restrict higher education’s ability to serve the global public.
Imagining a Global Good
All that said, the broader notion of a public good that denies the relevance of the nation-state -- such as a global good -- is also problematic. Global agendas still require cooperation from nation-states, from which public investments in education are vital. Moreover, trying to capture a unifying global good can fail to explore the increasingly unequal power relations associated with globalization. A global version of the public good may not address the everyday struggles of marginalized groups. And there is abundant evidence of westernized norms being interchangeably confused or imposed as global ones.
The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for 2015 was one such attempt to establish a common global agenda and was heavily criticized for its limited inclusion of low-income countries in the planning phase. The UN’s focus on universal primary education, for example, neglected to account for the basic need for qualified teachers and better teacher training in most African countries.
Now, the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, as an effort to be more inclusive of a wider range of stakeholders, consist of 17 goals and a whopping 169 associated objectives. In regard to higher education, the aim is to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” While such global values might appear quite benign, for the world’s poorest countries, they cannot all be realistically achieved, at least partly due to their inherent incompatibility with other objectives, such as environmental and economic goals. Sub-Saharan Africa is arguably the most peripheral region and would require more reliance on foreign aid and investment, resulting in greater indebtedness and potentially leaving the current political and economic global order unchanged.
So, who comprises the public and where is the public good located? To summarize: the public should not be restricted to the nation-state or watered down globally, as these illusory scales too easily disregard people who live at the margins. The public good is not a zero-sum game, nor it is a metaphorical joining of hands, resulting in all talk and no action.
Rather, the public good is an ideological battle made real in the contested spaces of our everyday lives. Change does not wait for a trickle down of political decisions, even at the highest presidential level. And change does not occur through mere global sensitivities, relegating our sympathies to the so-called third world. Instead, change takes place in the very real day-to-day human struggles that occur within and across national boundaries -- not remotely situated in a faraway location but realized in everyday experience.
Compared to some parts of the world, academics in the United States still have considerable freedom to make choices as to whom and what we study. We can write about the public good as a detached social scientist, and for those of us who do so, we must be conscious of who constitutes the public being addressed and the consequences for those excluded.
But for the more daring, more work is needed in engaging with the public good as a human experience affected by national and international agendas, especially in giving voice to those without power, within and outside our borders, and to make their circumstances known. We may write about the margins, but do we live in them and know them by first names? By actively engaging with the peripheries, we are reconstituting the “public” in which we are all part.
There are numerous socially engaged intellectuals at my university and elsewhere whose work focuses on people in the margins and beyond the nation-state. The forgotten and excluded include refugees and asylum seekers, undocumented students, international students, and others who are too easily overlooked or excluded as part of the university’s mission in serving the public good. What is needed more than a single policy or election result are greater numbers of individuals and groups actively voicing the challenges of the most vulnerable and advocating on their behalf -- whether through community partnerships, coalition building, informing policy or simply being more aware of the implications of our work beyond the U.S. majority’s interests.
In conclusion, the battle for the public good still exists, here in the United States and in countries throughout the world, and it started long before our recent presidential election. My comments are not to engage in one issue at the expense of others, as all movements are interlinked, but to consider more broadly the ways we frame our work and for whom our recommendations are made -- and the globally public responsibilities we all share.
Jenny J. Lee is a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.
Every university has a list of A journals, those it considers to be the most prestigious in its field. Even the journals that rank institutions have such lists, and many universities use them to measure their impact. As a result, academics establish their credentials by publishing in these journals, and universities grant tenure and promotion for the same. Various institutions even pay their professors a bonus (what some people would call a bribe) for publishing in such select journals.
This is warping the scientific process by narrowing the scope of impact to one type of journal, which reaches one type of audience using one type of content and style. The situation became so bad that Randy Schekman, a Nobel laureate in cell physiology, announced in 2013 that his lab would no longer send research papers to what he calls the “luxury” journals of his field -- Nature, Cell and Science -- because of their distortive encouragement of research that pursues trendy and mainstream lines of inquiry instead of more self-directed and innovative directions.
I have seen that firsthand, working with junior faculty who say they cannot publish in a particular journal because it is not on their institution’s A list and therefore will “not count” toward their accomplishments. This is anti-intellectual. As Russell Jacoby warned in his book The Last Intellectuals, it “registers not the needs of truth but academic empire building.” Academic publishing is becoming more about establishing a pecking order and less about pursuing knowledge. And that has several unintended consequences.
A limited audience. It is time to recalibrate our research norms over who we are trying to reach with our work, to re-examine our notions of impact through outlet and audience. A good research portfolio has a mix of A and B journals, each used for its own purpose. The target of A journals is typically a narrow audience of other disciplinary academics. But that misses entire swaths of audiences. Many B journals reach a broader set of academics, many with a more empirical focus. And some journals reach beyond the walls of academe to speak to policy makers, nongovernmental organizations, businesses or the general public. Further, they are not all traditional outlets. Blogs and other forms of social media are now becoming part of the academic portfolio.
Does our work actually result in real-world change? In the A journals, that is a question that is rarely, if ever, asked. Many academics, in fact, would argue that the question is irrelevant to their pursuit of knowledge. But certainly our work is meant for more. In a recent decision to include social media and digital activities in its criteria matrix for academic advancement, the Mayo Clinic's Academic Appointments and Promotions Committee announced, "The moral and societal duty of an academic health-care provider is to advance science, improve the care of his/her patients and share knowledge. A very important part of this role requires physicians to participate in public debate, responsibly influence opinion and help our patients navigate the complexities of health care." This is a compelling challenge to move away from a narrow focus on A journals.
Less creative and diverse research. Beyond audience, publishing only in A journals can limit creativity and diversity, as they are one type of channel with one set of criteria for what constitutes “good” research. But is that the only criterion?
In some fields (such as mine, management), the A journals are generally theory driven, whereas the B journals are generally phenomena driven. That has led Donald C. Hambrick to offer the critique that the former have a “theory fetish,” where practical relevance takes a backseat to theoretical rigor, and empirical evidence is used to inform theory, rather than the other way around. As papers go through the review process, he warned, “The straightforward beauty of the original research idea will probably be largely lost. In its place will be what we too often see in our journals and what undoubtedly puts nonscholars off: a contorted, misshapen, inelegant product, in which an inherently interesting phenomenon has been subjugated to an ill-fitting theoretical framework.”
Hambrick continues, “In academic management we have allowed obsession with theory to compromise the larger goal of understanding. Most important, perhaps, it prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists but which, once reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation.”
These are the foibles in the management A journals, but each discipline has its own issues. In the A journals of any field, what constitutes good research is only that which propels the research tracks of the moment. It blinds the field to the interesting ideas that may lie outside those tracks, and only a few brave scholars would deviate from those tracks for fear of risking tenure.
Yet such nonconformity can lead to real payoff. For example, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in economics, published some of his best papers in B journals because, he told me, “They were rejected by A journals!”
Krugman’s story is a cautionary tale for young academics in the midst of the great explosion of publishing outlets. Today, there are just under two million articles published annually in an estimated 28,000 journals. Some are in what are considered A journals, but the vast majority are in B journals. Add to that growing landscape the world of social media. Many academics are now using blogs to test and crowdsource their ideas with peers and the general public. In short, future academics can publish in a broad portfolio of outlets to increase the creativity and impact of their life’s work.
Guaranteed irrelevance. How long does it take between submission and publication of an article? One study found that publication lags range from nine to 18 months, with the shortest overall delays occurring in science, technology and medical fields and the longest in social science, arts/humanities and business/economics. Such long lag times virtually guarantee the practical irrelevance of a paper’s research.
Moreover, as the number of researchers and papers grows over time -- according to another study, the number of scholarly papers is growing at a rate of 3.26 percent per year, or doubling every 20 years -- you could fairly hypothesize that much this growing volume of research will be aimed at the short and fairly static list of A journals, thus leading to ever-longer publishing lag times.
As this lag time increases, think about the number of hours an average academic will spend over the course of the one to four years necessary to publish an A paper. One study estimated that the cost of a single scholarly article written by business school professors was as much as $400,000.
Is that really the best use of so much high-powered mental capacity? Is the outcome and payback really appropriate to the effort? How could that time be better spent? In some cases, the same paper could be submitted to a B journal, accepted and published more quickly, with time remaining to disseminate the results in a blog, a media interview or some other format -- and with the next paper begun.
Questionable impact. Regardless of such sobering statistics, academics are still directed to pursue the A journal for academic status. And that pursuit disregards another sobering statistic on who actually reads them. We can take this issue in two parts.
First, let’s consider a journal’s impact factor, which is the ratio of (a) the number of citations in the current year to articles published in the previous two years divided by (b) the number of substantive articles and reviews published in the same two years. So an impact factor of 5.3 for a top-tier A journal in my field, Administrative Science Quarterly, means that the average paper is cited 5.3 times annually over its first two years. The five-year impact factor only raises that number to 7.5. Is that real impact?
Looking more deeply, the distribution is not normal, leading to what some call the 80/20 phenomenon, where 20 percent of articles may account for 80 percent of citations. A 2005 editorial in Nature noted that 89 percent of the journal’s impact factor of 32.2 could be attributed to 25 percent of the papers published during that time period. In a larger study, only 0.5 percent of 38 million articles cited from 1900 to 2005 were cited more than 200 times.
And that leads to the second way to look at the question. Citation counts are our primary measure of a paper’s scholarly impact, and yet citation counts on average are distressingly low. By one count, 12 percent of medicine articles were never cited, nor were 27 percent of natural science papers, 32 percent in the social sciences and 82 percent in the humanities. Another study found that 59 percent of articles in the top science and social-science journals were not cited in the period from 2002 to 2006. It is time to question our primary reliance on citations and journal impact factors for measuring impact.
B journals that reach nonacademic audiences are cited much less by academics (if at all) and are therefore ignored as having impact. Further, social media is starting to enter the academic portfolio and is again ignored, even though increasing numbers of the public, politicians and even fellow academics find their information about science there. How does a blog with a half million views compare in impact to the average academic paper that was cited only 10.81 times between 2000 and 2010 (that number drops to only 4.67 for the social sciences), according to Thomson Reuters?
Further, some preliminary research is beginning to show a positive value from social media, like Twitter, for increasing visibility (even citation counts) for academic papers. And some organizations, like the American Sociological Association, are exploring metrics and models for rigorously measuring the impact of alterative outlets. It is time to reconsider whom we are trying to reach and how we measure the extent to which we are reaching them.
What Are We Becoming?
In 1963, Bernard Forscher published a letter in Science magazine, lamenting that academic scholarship had become fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge -- bricks -- and was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole. In time, he worried, brick making would become an end in itself.
Perhaps his critique has now come true. We are becoming a field of brick makers, and the narrow focus on A journals is one factor among several that is helping to guide us there. That is truly dangerous as we may, as a result, be courting irrelevance. We need to be re-examining how we practice our craft, not challenging the rigor of what we do, but recalibrating and expanding our focus. Returning to the sentiments expressed by the Mayo Clinic: “As clinician educators our job is not to create knowledge obscura, trapped in ivory towers and only accessible to the enlightened; the knowledge we create and manage needs to impact our communities.”
Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (U.S.) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, with appointments in the Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Few accounts of a scholar’s working conditions lodge themselves in a reader’s imagination quite like Eric Auerbach’s understated remarks in the epilogue to his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946). A German-Jewish philologist, Auerbach was forced out of his academic position in 1935. He escaped with his family to Turkey the following year, and for most of the next decade, he pursued a study in comparative literature on a grand scale -- analyzing texts in several language from more than two millennia -- amid the uncertainties of exile.
The book was written during the war and at Istanbul, where the libraries are not well equipped for European studies. International communications were impeded; I had to dispense with almost all periodicals, with almost all the more recent investigations, and in some cases with reliable critical editions of my texts. Hence it is possible and even probable that I overlooked things which I ought to have considered and that I occasionally assert something which modern research has disproved or modified. I trust that these probable errors include none which affect the core of my argument …. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.
This passage tends to stick in one’s memory. It gives the book an aura of heroism. And Auerbach himself stands as the patron saint of everyone trying to resist the urge to consult just one more paper … just one more book … before adding their own mite to the scholarly literature.
Romanticizing the condition of exile is ultimately one of the more dubious privileges of unreflective security, however. And as such, it evades an unwelcome truth: the condition of the refugee scholar is no historical matter but a 21st-century reality.
So much so, in fact, that one of the oldest academic presses in the world has now added a new periodical to its catalog. As of its second issue, The Journal of Interrupted Studies, founded in 2015 by students at the University of Oxford, will carry the imprint of Brill Publishers. (With headquarters in the Netherlands, the press has been around in one form or another since the 17th century.)
Describing itself as “a multidisciplinary publication dedicated to academic work jeopardized by forced migration,” the Journal debuted in June 2016 with six peer-reviewed articles. Three were by Syrians; the other three by scholars from Ethiopia, Gambia and Jordan. By my count, two of the papers concerned political and economic issues directly affecting refugees, while a third, which explored problems in teaching English-language sentence structure and intonation, had clear practical implications for how some refugees adapt to a new country. Another two papers analyzed economic developments in Africa without directly focusing on emigration. Finally, the issue ended with a first-person account of primary and secondary education in Syria, by a teacher and translator who studied English at the University of Aleppo -- an essay that, judging by a slightly anxious headnote, the editors clearly wanted to have yet worried did not belong in a peer-reviewed scholarly publication.
The dilemma should not come up again. In January, the journal launched a blog called “Interruptions: New Perspectives on Migration,” open to “the journalism, personal essays, fiction, poetry, photography and art of those directly or indirectly affected by migration, and of those who feel they have something to contribute to a revised discussion thereof.”
Behind this ambitious enterprise are Marcos Barclay and Paul Ostwald -- two Oxford undergraduates whose friendship owes something to their similarly extraterritorial upbringings. Mark (as he prefers) describes himself as “half English and half Argentinean,” while Paul’s early years were spent in Germany, Kenya and Russia. Between travel, editorial duties and preparing for finals in a few weeks, they managed to respond to my questions about JIS by email.
The seed was planted in late 2015. While watching a German television show with his father, Paul noticed something about how the program identified its talking heads: a German citizen would be presented with his or her full name, while a refugee would be noted as “Kazim, refugee.” Paul had met highly educated Syrian refugees and found the “small but very telling instance of condescending chumminess” offensive on their behalf.
Discussing it later, Mark and Paul decided that what displaced academics needed was a platform from which they could intervene in public life as displaced academics -- figures whose participation in the community of scholars ought to be regarded not as marginal but as having been interrupted.
In letting them resume their work, such a publication would have to be interdisciplinary -- and open access as well. As Mark put it, “Accepting submissions across disciplines means we can show interruption in different academic fields (social science, natural sciences, art history, law and creative writing, to name a few) and different migration contexts (environmental, political, humanitarian).” Likewise, he says, open-access publishing “allowed us to promote the intellectual dignity of our authors” -- who retain intellectual property in their work -- “in a forum that encourages exchange.”
The first issue of the journal took about six months to prepare. “We started off with encouragement from our tutors and Act Now, an Austrian institution which funded our first issue,” Paul told me by email. “Then we received support from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, the German national scholarship program. Beyond that, we have a fantastic team of about 12 people and independent peer reviewers who continue to work on submissions, and our blog.”
A second issue was announced for late 2016, but it has been delayed for what sound like altogether pretty agreeable reasons. “After an exchange of emails and Skype meetings,” Mark says, “we found ourselves sitting in the office of [Brill Publishing] CEO Herman Pabbruwe in Leiden. I remember the sleepless night in anticipation of our meeting and the slightly surreal bus trip to the airport at 3 a.m. as we tried to make our 10 a.m. meeting. When we arrived in Leiden, Paul suggested we mark the occasion by stretching our student budget and going for breakfast. I will never forget sitting next to a canal trying to enjoy a very nice scrambled egg, but quaking with nervousness!”
The discussion went well, perhaps in part because of Brill’s record of support for open-access scholarship. Besides its digital edition, the journal will also be available in print.
The editors told me a little about the forthcoming contents -- but no details, as yet, about the scholars involved: “We make it a policy not to supply the names of our authors unless we have their consent, as sometimes they may wish to withhold their identity for reasons for personal safety.” They hope to be able to give all the names when the journal finally appears.
Of six papers slated for the next issue, three strike me as possibly indicative of the journal’s range and potential. One looks at “the strategies employed by German municipalities in integrating [Syrian] refugees at social, cultural and economic levels” and makes recommendations about how the tactics might be more widely applied.
Another paper makes the case for national and international aid to victims of ecological catastrophes in Bangladesh, based on “a number of precedent cases where international bodies have made humanitarian interventions on grounds of environmental risk.” The editors say they chose the paper because of the relative neglect of the issue in the West “in spite of the fact it has become a severe threat in the developing world as rapid industrialization unfolds.”
And a paper on art history goes back to the origins of forced migration -- or at least one of the earliest stories in which it features. The author examines how the Tower of Babel has been the overt or implicit image of “cultural and social dislocation … throughout many examples of Western contemporary art ranging from Soviet Constructivism to postmodern art.”
All three articles are scheduled to appear in the second issue of the Journal of Interrupted Studies, due out this summer.
If we strike while the iron is hot, this could be an opportunity not just to defend some abstract understanding of “science” but also to advance a much stronger vision of how science can serve the common good. Scientists and others in the STEM fields should make lasting commitments to stand in solidarity with the people of the world most harmed not just by the Trump administration but also by oppression and exploitation in all their forms.
The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of society has already long been shackled. Ask Marc Edwards. He's the Virginia Tech professor who worked with people in Flint, Mich., to expose the poisoning of their water supply. In an interview titled “Public Science Is Broken,” Edwards criticized the “perverse incentives” offered to faculty members and the risks involved in challenging the people who provide research funding. He concluded, “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.”
That treadmill is not the science we need to defend. Nor is the science that profits agribusiness at the expense of impoverished farmers, torments villagers with the threat of drone strikes or otherwise privileges the acquisition of knowledge beneficial to corporate and military interests above that which supports human needs.
We should also be wary of defending science when it is imagined to be the province solely of an expert elite. We can respect the knowledge science produces while recognizing the many people from diverse social backgrounds who contribute to it: not just Ph.D.s but also farmers, members of environmental justice communities, people living with illnesses under research and many others.
The science we should rally to defend is that which people pursue with political consciousness for the benefits it brings to society and the planet. Lest anyone see that as too utilitarian, I would hasten to emphasize that charting the stars, learning the language of dolphins and pursuing a great many other subjects that bring us enlightenment qualify as benefiting society, provided we keep a sharp eye on how such knowledge is acquired and applied.
More than just defending such science, we must create a vibrant movement of STEM workers who see their survival and liberation as tied to the survival and liberation of poor people, people of color, people in the global South and others who are most vulnerable to the disasters our political and economic systems have produced.
This is hardly the first time scientists have organized to engage politically. In the United States today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is perhaps the most familiar organization that continues to promote, mainly through policy advocacy, what it calls “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” Their work remains invaluable.
However, we should also recognize other groups in different times and places, many of which have adopted more activist approaches and an analysis more sharply focused on wresting science from the oppressive power structures of capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, and placing it in the service of social needs. The British Science and Society Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indian Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad founded in 1962, and the Philippine AGHAM: Advocates of Science and Technology for the People founded in 1999 are just a few examples.
The United States once had its own activist science organization, called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, better known as Science for the People. The original organization formed in 1969 out of the rising tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam. Although it folded in 1989, its members carried their cause forward. Former SftP members have been involved in improving health and safety for factory workers, mobilizing farming communities to document and resist pesticide exposure, working with communities in Eritrea and Malawi to develop sustainable energy technologies, researching and promoting agro-ecological approaches to farming in the United States and Latin America, and many other areas of politically engaged, socially conscious science.
The Science for the People movement is currently being revitalized; chapters are now forming on campuses at Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania and Tennessee at Knoxville. Numbers will no do doubt swell as the Trump administration helps make the stakes clearer to STEM workers and students across the country and the world.
In times of political crisis, some people may be tempted to embrace science as an apolitical force of reason. While science does offer reason, it does not do so in a political vacuum. We have political choices to make. We have to decide what kind of science is worth making and worth fighting for. We have to make that science. And we have to fight for it.
Sigrid Schmalzer is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Science for the People: Documents From America's Movement of Radical Scientists, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.
I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?
How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.
Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.
A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.
It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.
The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.
For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.
House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.
Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.
Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.
The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.
The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.
Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.
So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?
Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.
Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.
Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.
Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.
Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.
David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.