Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Grants Go Marching One By One...

A recent publication for academics in my field includes a brief article bemoaning the state of research funding in the US. The recent failure of Congress to pass NIH's budget increase took center stage. I was affected by these problems, in a way; my advisor was part of a joint grant that spent several months in the limbo of "we want to fund it, but can't officially until we know how much money we'll have". This had immediate concerns about whether I would need to TA this semester (I didn't, as the old grant is good 'til end of summer), and potential long-term concerns about whether I would need to TA my way through my PhD. Despite this, I can't help but feel a slight bit of pretension in the article. How much funding are we really entitled to, anyway?

Sure, the article cited the NIH's ongoing battle to cure cancer, ward off Alzheimer's, develop treatment for Parkinson's. And some people are using NIH funds to do just that. But I'm not; more to the point, my advisor isn't, and her grant isn't. Our research is incredibly interesting to us, of course, but probably not to anyone else. There has been an article or two in local newspapers over the past decade, but it's never going to make national news, not even in a "weird science" or "offbeat human interest" column. Looking at the articles in one of the journals I just received, I see a lot of potentially interesting but hardly life-altering articles. The same publication included tips for journal editors on how to select articles for publication that would "advance the field", but no-one seems to be doing it.

So, do we merit an extra so-many million dollars of funding? To be honest...not really.
I can accept billions of dollars being spent funding matters of purely academic interest only in the same way I can accept billions of dollars being spent making movies: it's necessary to keep everyone employed and keep the economy limping along.

Even within my own field, there are people doing research of practical importance that might change the way we live. There I can see the argument that shifting the budget to war and defense expenses is a tragedy, if not a crime. When it comes down to hearing the complaints of people who couldn't state the importance of their research beyond resolving a long-standing debate in the field, however, I'd rather see the money not spent at all.

This is why I probably won't go into research academia as a profession. I don't want to apply for grants, partly because I'm intimidated/lazy, but mostly because I don't have that semi-egotistical notion of deserving funding that is so necessary to convince anyone to give you funding. Deep down, I don't want to be so directly responsible for taking money away from research that might actually turn out something useful, or even such a non-event as trying to pay off the national debt.

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