Among the Intellectualoids

Panic in Faculty Lounges

The Sequester is turning out worse than losing tenure.

By 3.18.13

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It’s always a knee-slapper when American university professors and administrators, representatives of one of the most extravagantly funded and unaccountable industries in the history of the world, complain they are being underfunded and that the world will suffer as a result. And you thought politicians were good at conflating their personal interests with those of the cosmos.

The sequester hustle out of the White House was such a transparent fraud, and such an intellectual flim-flam, it’s no surprise that the deep thinkers in faculty lounges have fallen for it. And have attempted to turn it to their advantage.

An Associated Press story over the weekend quotes poobahs from some of the nation’s better-known universities -- MIT, Johns Hopkins, USC, UMass-Amherst, et al.) whining that the recent trifling cut in the rate at which the federal government metastasizes will bring the growth of knowledge in America to a standstill. Scientifically talented students will flee to other countries where intellectual opportunities are better (Venezuela perhaps? Guatemala?), they threaten. This could lead to a “brain drain,” they warn.

Be still my heart. Is another dark age on the horizon? Is it time for Irish monks to start collecting the books again? Will the lights really go out in Cambridge, New Haven, Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor, Palo Alto? 

The Associated Press writer reports that professors claim they are wondering if this loss of a fraction of a fraction of proposed increase in federal spending will lead young scientists to “become discouraged by domestic funding challenges and either leave for careers abroad (see above re Venezuela) or change fields.” 

Scott Zenger, vice provost for research at Johns Hopkins University, said the cuts will “mean that people aren’t spending quiet time thinking about how nature works.” (I did a lot of this at various student watering holes as an undergraduate, but it’s hard to see how the nation benefited.) Scientists already have “less time to spend in their labs because they have to spend more time seeking grants,” he lamented.

But all that grant-writing time has certainly paid off. The amount of government funding for university research reached $33.3 billion in 2010, the AP reports. (And don’t forget private research money.) That’s quite a gravy train, and one can see how university types panic at the thought of it being cut off, or even slowed. But do we really get more than $33 billion in useful scientific knowledge for all that tax money?

TAS readers are familiar with countless stories over the years of the goofy things government research grants have been extended for. Allow me to share a recent favorite. Just a couple of weeks after we learned that White House tours for civilians would have to be curtailed because of lack of funds, CNS News reported that the National Institutes of Health awarded Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston $1.5 million to study why lesbians are fat. As Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up.

Some busybodies, with lots of time on their hands, have determined that three-quarters of lesbians are obese whereas gay males are, for the most part, svelte. How this was arrived at, or why anyone except the fat or thin people involved should care, was not made clear.

At any rate, one and a half mil seems a high price to pay to answer this peculiar but not all that baffling question (though almost certainly when this money runs out, the conclusion will be, “Further research is needed”). Heck, for $100 and a 750 ML bottle of middling cabernet, I could have told NIH that if the lesbians are fat, or if anyone else with any other proclivity has allowed herself/himself to become a pie-wagon, it’s almost certainly because she/he eats too much and doesn’t exercise enough. We don’t need grant-bearing federals to figure this out. We’ve knew this for centuries before grants were invented, or even scientists, come to that.

If university officials are in a dither about how to replace lost research funds, they have plenty of options, as the sheer waste in the university industry is staggering. A great first step would be for universities to sluff off all the useless administrators that have been added to payrolls over the fat years of the recent decades. The railroads have nothing on universities for featherbedding. Saying adios to various assistant deputy provosts for this or that, as well as to such as vice presidents for diversity and their bloated staffs, would free a good deal of money for research.

Universities could also close the departments of women’s studies, black studies, queer studies, and all the other faddish majors that lead to graduates who are indignant, broke, in debt, and unemployable. They could and should cancel all that pricey travel to conferences where professors read out loud to other hung-over professors papers that said professors could as well read in their offices on campus, if they were interested, which in most cases, they are not (choose any article at random from the from the Publication of the Modern Language Association and you will see why).

Colleges could get professors to actually work for their considerable salaries. This would include getting over the fantasy that teaching nine hours per week is a “full load.” (This is a load all right, but not in the way university hustlers mean it.) All this non-teaching time, university administrators claim, is so that professors can do “original research,” much of which is incoherent nonsense published in journals no one reads (see above re any article in the PMLA), stuff that no one would miss if it were never churned out.

From my years on daily newspapers, I see the attraction of an easy story. And this may be what motivated the AP reporter here, who is, after all, just a working stiff trying to get through the week. Call a few university types and get them to whine about their troubles (no challenge at all), type up the results, and head for the gym. But if any attempt is to be made to separate the important from the silly and self-serving, it would be useful to hear less about nonexistent brain drains, and more about money and productivity drains caused by millions of students idling, at great expense, for years on end in universities, listening to PhDs who have their eyes on various government treasuries, and on the main chance. And whose contributions to the world’s store of useful knowledge is, in way too many cases, too small to measure.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.