The Neglected Implications of Grant Culture

A requirement that research faculty members obtain grants to achieve tenure is, in some cases, patently unethical, argues Scott O. Lilienfeld.

July 2, 2018

Much ink has recently been spilled over the problems posed by the grant-mandatory culture, an ethos in which the procurement of external funding is a de facto requirement for many faculty members, especially those in the sciences. In a growing number of academic institutions, tenure, promotion and access to graduate student lines and laboratory space have become difficult or impossible without grants, regardless of one’s levels of scholarly productivity and influence. In response to those developments, critics have raised pointed concerns regarding the culture’s: a) corrosive impact on scholarly creativity, b) diversion of research endeavors toward trendy topics and techniques, and c) inadvertent incentivizing of questionable research practices.

Important as those concerns are, however, they omit a crucial element of the story that precious few academic administrators have acknowledged: the ethical implications of the grant-mandatory culture. Indeed, one can make a compelling case that a demand that most if not all research-oriented faculty members obtain grants to achieve tenure, access to graduate students and the like is ethically problematic and, in some cases, patently unethical.

To be sure, grant awards have their upsides. Research and training grants can fund graduate student lines and subsidize postdoctoral positions, which are often essential for providing early-career scholars with specialized training. Grants can spur healthy competition in the marketplace of ideas by encouraging investigators to develop more effective means of posing and testing research questions. In addition, especially in the natural sciences, many lines of research are impossible without funding, given the expenditures required to cover project and staffing costs.

Still the question is not whether research-intensive universities need grant support to thrive; they clearly do. The question is whether it is ethically defensible to expect so many faculty members in fundable areas to obtain grants. For at least three reasons, it rarely if ever is.

First, in the social sciences and some other disciplines, many investigators can and do conduct high-quality research without grants. For example, numerous influential scholars in cognitive, social and personality psychology carry out their primary work with little or no money, often drawing on unpaid volunteers from human participant pools or community members who are compensated with modest fees. Requiring these investigators and other faculty members who can readily perform their research without grants to apply for external funding -- a demand that has become increasingly routine at many universities -- comes with a major ethical price tag. This practice leads many professors to consume sizable sums of taxpayer money when it is unnecessary, as well as to spuriously inflate their research costs. It also diverts money from investigators who cannot sustain their research programs without funding, often forcing them to lay off personnel and, in some cases, shutter their laboratories entirely.

Second, some universities expect faculty members to fund the costs of graduate students -- stipends and fellowships, tuition, and sometimes health insurance and other fees -- on federal grants. Yet for the same amount or less money, these professors could hire qualified postbaccalaureate students who could put in far more hours, as they are unencumbered with burdensome doctoral training requirements. As one example, familiar to me as a faculty member at a clinical psychology doctoral program, our graduate students rarely have more than 15 hours per week to devote to research between classes, teaching and clinical training responsibilities; in contrast, a post-B.A. assistant can put in 40 hours every week. Consequently, university administrators are handing taxpayers, who foot the bill for federal grants, a raw deal for their money.

Third, the grant-mandatory culture collides with two crucial missions of academe: the free pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination via teaching. With regard to the first mission, many professors report that because of their institution’s expectations for acquiring funding, combined with the circumscribed priorities of granting agencies, they feel pressured to devote much of their time to research questions that they find uninteresting or unimportant.

And when it comes to the second mission, a recent survey of faculty members in astronomy and psychology revealed that the average grant proposal consumes 116 hours of principal investigator time. When professors must devote much of their time to repeatedly preparing and submitting grants, along with administering grants they have received, something has to give. That something is typically teaching, along with mentoring and advising. Indeed, in many science departments, education takes a back seat to the grant chase. In response to the grant-mandatory culture, many of them delegate undergraduate teaching and undergraduate research mentoring to graduate students or underpaid adjunct faculty members.

We would expect many administrators to respond to these criticisms with a familiar refrain. Yes, one can hear them saying, in an ideal world it would be wonderful to run a research-intensive university without substantial external funding, but we do not live in such a world. Many academic institutions, especially public universities, are strapped for cash, and they need faculty members to help bring in money.

But that argument is less than convincing for two reasons. First, academic institutions must make difficult decisions about how to spend their financial resources. They could elect to make the funding of graduate education a priority, and some do. In contrast, many of the same institutions that are relentlessly pressuring faculty members to seek grants to support graduate lines choose to channel their financial resources largely into constructing more attractive dormitories, modernizing student recreation centers, building health-care facilities and hiring highly paid administrators who are not contributing directly to scholarship.

Second, even as one can acknowledge the financial exigencies bearing down on many universities, faculty members are entitled to a fundamental expectation of intellectual honesty from administrative staff. Many administrators justify their grant policies on the grounds that the procurement of external funding is a crucial benchmark of scholarly excellence. That rationale -- some might term it a rationalization -- rests on shaky premises. As people who have sat on federal grant panels, myself included, are aware, the peer evaluation of grants is influenced by a host of factors. To be certain, the quality of the proposed research is one barometer of grant success, but even the most scientifically promising research will typically go unfunded if the proposal is deemed to be risky or a suboptimal fit with current research priorities. And, at least in psychology, the association between whether an article was grant funded and its citation impact seems to be somewhat scant. Moreover, many Nobel laureates in the natural sciences have accomplished their seminal discoveries with no external funding. Clearly, the widespread assertion that grant support is invariably needed for high-quality research is contradicted by evidence.

So what to do? I offer four recommendations.

First, let’s end the pervasive culture of ideological insularity and groupthink within academic administrations. As a parallel, within my field of psychology, the past decade has witnessed a growing awareness that our standard ways of doing research business have encouraged false-positive results -- that is, fluke findings that are unlikely to replicate in future studies. Hence, those of us in psychology departments have become accustomed to frank and, at times, ego-bruising conversations regarding our discipline’s shortcomings and potential remedies for them. The same level of self-scrutiny should become de rigueur among higher education administrators, including deans and provosts. They should sponsor regular discussions and public forums regarding the pros and cons of the grant-mandatory culture; such forums would almost surely be of considerable interest to many faculty members and graduate students. If they fail to do so, accrediting bodies should hold their feet to the fire, given that grant-mandatory policies are likely to exert a number of adverse effects on academic scholarship.

In addition, deans and other administrators should strive to more frequently retain their departmental affiliations, whenever possible dedicating no more than half of their work time to administration. Doing so would enable them to observe and perhaps even experience the impact of the grant-mandatory culture on the everyday lives of faculty members and students. Admittedly, this goal may not be feasible for all administrators, but for those who are still active scholars, it might be a realistic aspiration.

Second, I urge administrators to initiate honest conversations about the grant-mandatory culture with trustees, state legislators, funding agencies and other stakeholders. In doing so, they should admit that they are implicitly advocating for the use of taxpayer dollars to enhance their institution’s financial status at least as much as to support scholarship. I also encourage administrators to become more candid regarding their expectations of faculty members’ roles, such that the boilerplate language featured in many job advertisements (“Faculty members will be expected to attract external funding”) be replaced by even more forthright language: “Faculty members will be expected to assist in the university’s fund-raising mission by securing external grants.” In that way, the true financial function of the grant-mandatory culture becomes more evident to everyone.

Third, I encourage professional organizations to develop creative ways of recognizing high-quality research conducted without grant funding. For example, they could give annual awards to the best studies carried out with no taxpayer support. By doing so, they would publicly highlight the point that many scholars can perform superb research in a less expensive and more cost-effective manner.

Fourth, administrators must openly acknowledge the grant-mandatory culture’s deleterious effects on the time and effort that faculty members invest in teaching, mentoring and advising; their availability for consultation with students in other laboratories; and so on. U.S. law requires corporations to generate an environmental impact statement to describe the anticipated effects of their actions on the local habitat. Ideally, institutions that expect faculty members to obtain grants should would be required by accrediting bodies to furnish an “academic environment impact statement” that draws on available evidence to delineate the anticipated consequences of their policies on their professoriate’s teaching, mentoring, advising and collegiality. Such a requirement may be difficult to envision in the contemporary academic world, but perhaps it will one day come to be regarded as routine were we to witness a sea change in the culture of higher administration.

For far too long, professors at research-intensive institutions, myself included, have neglected to insist that administrators own up to the deeply troubling ethical implications of their grant policies. It is now up to us to urge administrators to engage in long-overdue conversations and collaborative problem solving with their faculty colleagues to address these issues.


Scott O. Lilienfeld is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the department of psychology at Emory University.


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