Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Federal Funding Fiasco

Immediately after Congress passed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, I saw colleagues in the university forming research groups to figure out what they could study to get some of the money, which was largely available through the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In designing their research, they carefully considered what the federal government would want them to investigate and they gave close attention to the social processes and consequences that the federal government defined as desirable. At the time, this struck me as disturbing because it reversed what I would normally consider the order of investigation: a researcher decides that a particular issue is important for understanding the world around us, develops a program for looking into this question, and then (if necessary) finds funding to carry out the research. But when the feds pay the piper, they call the tunes.

In today's highly subsidized world of higher education, there are no private institutions. Taxpayer money funds the tuition of the students, and it funds the research of the professors. One difficulty with this is that it tends to drive a wedge between the two areas of subsidization. The professors are going to be chasing after that grant money and designing their research to get the money, not doing research that they can present in the classroom.  The most successful are often those who spend the least time teaching and the most time seeking external funding.  A second difficulty is that it spreads a subtle politicization of the faculty, as professors seek to shape their careers according to the wishes of the funding bureaucracies, not according to the search for truth.

I was reminded of these thoughts when I read Heather MacDonald's article in City Journal, entitled "Granting Absurdity." MacDonald points out that grants are not really "free money." Grants are dollars that federal agencies draw from localities around the U.S. and then redistribute as the agencies see fit, siphoning off substantial sums for bureaucratic support. "Federal grant-making," MacDonald observes, "is the hook that Washington uses to gain control over local institutions, whether public or private. Universities and schools are in thrall to the Education Department’s absurd reading of Title IX law, for example, because of their consumption of federal (a.k.a. recycled local) dollars."

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