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SOME MAGNIFICENT ACADEMIC TRUSELS AND THEIR SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES

2.1 Diagnosis #1: Kenneth Boulding and the PIPS. Part of the diagnosis pertaining to displaceable content of formal academic programs can be found in Kenneth Boulding's discussion of Poor Intellectual Productivity (PIP). According to Boulding [1], poor intellectual productivity has three principal origins or Sources: unproductive emulation, spurious saliency, and cultural lag.

Unproductive emulation refers to what might be called "global academic groupthink" (GAG), a particular species of groupthink [2], in which one postulates that there are some truly outstanding academic institutions, and that those institutions who aspire to share in the greatness should emulate the outstanding ones.

Spurious saliency refers to what might be described as allocating importance to content that far exceeds the proper allocation.

Cultural lag refers to major time delays in assessing and implementing advances.

2.2 Diagnosis #2: Structural Incompetency Virus. Part of the diagnosis pertaining to displaceable content of academic programs is that academics (both faculty and administrators) suffer from SIV, the Structural Incompetency Virus. This afflication was discovered in group discussion extending over a prolonged period by a group of program managers from the U. S. Department of Defense.

It refers to a situation where, no matter what talent a person has, no matter what intelligent action a person might bring to a problematic situation, no matter what insights could be applied to resolving crises, the individual is precluded from exercising those talents and insights by virtue of the organizational structure in which the individual is embedded.

In the Department of Defense, a significant part of that organizational structure is the vast set of laws and regulations (confusing, contradictory, and almost unlimited in amount), along with the unpredictable micromanagement imposed on the program managers by an overstaffed array of bureaucrats, legislators, auditors, and comptrollers.

The extent of abuse of their various authority is commensurate only with the absence of responsibility for the mindless impact of their unpredictable and uncorrelated interventions.

2.3 Diagnosis #3: Underconceptualization Stemming from Defective Presuppositions.

Part of the diagnosis pertaining to displaceable content of academic programs is that the application of power in making choices is based on underconceptualization stemming from defective presuppositions [3]. The application of defective presuppositions apparently is at the root of a great many bad decisions made by managers of all types, including those in the academic establishment. The defective presuppositions are quite frequently not articulated (often because they are buried in the subsconscious), and consequently cannot be corrected through discussion.

Underconceptualization is a kind of system concept in which matters of considerable importance to some particular content are ignored, leading to a sub-conceptualization originating in the defective presuppositions.

2.4 Diagnosis #4: The Attraction of Magnificent Academic Trusels. A "trusel" is an

idea or a finding that is widely perceived to be true, but which is largely useless (or even of negative value). (The idea that a truth may lack value may be disturbing, but it is true, although it is not a trusel and probably will not be thought to be magnificent.)

A "Magnificent Academic Trusel" (MAT) is a trusel that has been widely acknowledged for its intellectual content (explicitly or implicitly), but without a corresponding amount of attention being given to its utility or even to its potential negative value for society. The negative value may come from commission or omission. It may deal with the content of a discipline, with the way a discipline is perceived, with knowledge that cuts across disciplines, and even with "integrative studies".

Academia is an environment where two main things go on as the defining part of the image that characterizes academia. These are: (a) faculty actions, involving the advancement of thousands of ideas to a student clientele (whether formally in the classroom or informally in the research environment) and (b) administrative actions involving the imposition of dozens of decisions that affect faculty-student performance and morale.

For reasons that are widely understood and accepted, the advancement of particular ideas is almost never subjected to prior scrutiny for evaluative purposes. Thus the concept of "quality control" in academia is weak, at best, and there is little likelihood that this situation will ever change through administrative action alone. Any attempt to "police" faculty utterances in the classroom will meet with deserving scorn.

Because the life of the faculty member in an academic institution is often hectic, and usually involves high motivation and long hours, administrative decision making seldom is much affected by the busy faculty at large; although some token representation is usually to be had. Administrative rhetoric constantly reminds the faculty (much to the satisfaction of the faculty, who like to have this fiction sustained) that the faculty comprise the ruling body, when all the while the administration is making those decisions at will that often reflect biased and uninformed opinions about what is going on in the complex institution called a university.

In an environment of this kind, where a faculty member can say almost anything in a classroom without fear of being called to account; and where there is an administrative-faculty tacit agreement that the administration can rule indiscriminately where it counts the most (i.e., in budget allocations), it is inevitable that severe abuse can take place both with respect to the propagation of knowledge and to the individual faculty member.

If constructive change is ever to occur, it seemingly must involve a change in the mental models of the faculty leading eventually to a different view of academic administration, and a meeting of the minds that allows academia to evolve to a higher level of respectability.

COSMOS Science and Society The New Lysenkoism and Fraud

I believe that the fact that the federal government is currently the principal provider of funds for science could soon become the most prominent source of fraud in science. Government support was highly beneficial as long as the leadership in government, particularly in the executive and legislative branches, did not interfere with the way in which the scientific process normally played itself out. It must be noted with concern, however, that during the present administration, a distinguished scientist, William Happer, on leave from one of our great universities, was discharged from a major agency under highly dubious circumstances. When asked by a committee of the Senate whether he personally believed there was an immediate danger that our planet would be subject to excessive ultraviolet radiation, he responded honestly that he did not believe such a hazard was immediately at hand, but that more funds should be devoted to direct studies of the trends. His answer, given in good faith, was contrary to the views of a highly placed government official (not a practicing scientist) who presumably insisted that he be discharged.

It is equally significant that the scientific apparatus established in the White House to oversee the uses and well-being of science thought it wise to remain silent in the matter. One or two instances of this kind automatically send a signal to the agencies concerning the nature of "results" that are to be expected from investigators. And so a form of Lysenkoism is born. One might have hoped that the private foundations which once regarded the support of natural science as a major part of their mission would serve as a counterbalance. Unfortunately, most of them have either lost interest in the advance of science or become part of the problem by being supportive of such government trends and moving most strangely in lock-step.

The only form of fraud that may possibly "get by" unnoticed in the long run, when the scientific system is allowed to work in an appropriately self-correcting way, is minor cosmetic changes that may be made by a relatively junior scientist to improve the appearance of data and perhaps the conclusions to be drawn from the work. Even then the individual places the fate of his or her career at risk in doing so because another investigator working in the area may discover the fraud and make it commonly known. In any event, actual cases of such forms of fraud are very rare, the number occurring in any given year being negligible compared to the outflow of well-tested results that join the mainstream of scientific work.

If the only source of controversy directed toward the scientific establishment originated from outside, it could be countered, presumably with a notable degree of success, through diligent, concerted action on the part of the scientific community, perhaps working in cooperation with its societies, academies and professional institutes. Unfortunately, the required unity appears to be absent at the moment. Perhaps the needed leadership is lacking. It is not only that the various disciplines vie with one another for scarce funds and are willing to beggar their neighbors, but some scientists have become caught in the coils of what may be called correct sociopolitical thinking and their actions are strongly influenced by it.

Internal Conflicts

The quite understandable interdisciplinary struggle for funds could be contained by the use of some not very radical techniques of apportioning funds, as must be done in many aspects of an economy. However, the intervention of motives governed by sociopolitical goals rather than purely scientific investigative ones greatly complicates the situation. The individuals involved in this practice do not, like Stalin and his cohorts, become involved with the fundamentals of well-established fields, such as genetics, quantum chemistry, relativity theory or plate tectonics where they would meet deeply entrenched obstacles put in place by well-recognized scientists. Instead, they focus on areas of science which are inherently more complex, in which truly acceptable end results can only be achieved over very long periods of time and in which there is a finite chance, usually very difficult to disprove, that the end result would imply that segments of society could face significant hazards in worst-case scenarios. Generally speaking, the steps required to counter the effects that might arise in such extreme situations would demand expensive changes in ongoing practices, coupled with extensive control by government agencies.

The Extremists Are Heard

The extremists involved in such work insist that radical steps be taken long before there is solid evidence that the worst-case situation actually will occur. Environmental studies involving open-ended research provide ideal areas for action of this kind. Two obvious examples that come to mind concern the possibility of catastrophic global warming as a result of the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gasoline and gas in whatever form. Another centers on the possible destruction of the ozone layer in the stratosphere which shields us from very harmful bands of ultraviolet radiations produced by the sun through the release of manmade halogen-containing compounds such as freon, an ideal refrigerant that is used widely, and the halons which are very effective in smothering fires.

Actually, there appear to be three types of individuals who become deeply concerned about the possibility of worst-case scenarios in connection with such environmental topics.

First, there are those who are rightfully worried about the burden our species places upon our planet. Their concern is genuine and one must resonate to their worries. One hopes in the case of the two issues that they are less influenced by the media hype which surrounds the topics than by the fact that the average global temperature has remained steady for the past 15 years in spite of the rise in the use of fossil fuels, and the fact that the ozone layer, with significant fluctuations of only moderately well-understood origins, has been constant on average for over 50 years -- since long before the freons or halons were commonly used. In other words, there is no evidence of immediate disaster in either case. (Incidentally, much attention has been focussed on the status of the so-called ozone holes in the Antarctic, an annual phenomenon first observed nearly 40 years ago. Whatever else, the appearance of such holes has a major natural component unrelated to humanly introduced halogen compounds. One should be focussing on research that clarifies the source of the periodic minima in ozone concentration rather than claiming that the sky is about to fall.)

Second, there are those scientists who tend to work, not where some inner drive forces them to, but where the money is -- a not unworthy posture provided scientific integrity is maintained. But maintaining integrity in environmental research requires unusual courage these days since the cash registers controlled by the government and indeed most of the larger private foundations are strongly biased toward a form of political correctness. The discharging of a distinguished scientist from a federal agency tells part of the story.

Some Serious Consequences

Finally, there are those who have otherwise good scientific credentials but have become caught up in a special evangelical mission that goes beyond trying to know the answer, either for its own sake or to clarify a complex situation along traditional lines. They would like to have it come out in accordance with their sociopolitical wishes and demand that society follow their cries for action, costly though it may be. They move, at the moment, with the spirit of the times. Nature, however, will follow its own rules, and, in the long run, the truth will out. Unfortunately, much damage to our economy and social structure could occur before that truth is known if we decide to follow them and they are wrong. In parallel is inevitable damage to the reputation of the scientific community as a whole.

What to conclude? The pursuit of science in the U.S. faces great challenges at the present time, challenges that go far beyond the fact that only limited funds are available to fuel a highly effective and well-staffed machine. That such shortages would eventually occur was, of course, predictable decades ago since the rate of growth of the scientific community, as well as the growth of its needs, was larger than the rate of growth of the economy. It was evident that some balance would have to be struck. Under more normal conditions, the means for achieving that balance would be regarded as the most important issue affecting the scientific endeavor at present, a matter worthy of extensive, unbiased congressional hearings.

Unfortunately, the funds issue, which is of vital interest for the well-being of both science and society, has become subordinated to issues that should not arise in an otherwise healthy environment. Not only is the relevance of science and the integrity of its practitioners under attack, but those who provide support question both the cost of research and the traditional and highly successful methods scientists have used to exploit the fields in which they work. In the meantime, scarce funds are diverted to support work of questionable validity and hypothetical urgency. There is the expressed assurance that bureaucrats know best.

Beyond this, and truly sinister, is the trend in some fields, at present most notably those related to environmental affairs, for some scientists to leap well ahead of what is known from solid research and to draw worst-case conclusions that would require truly radical and expensive changes in the way our advanced society uses available money and technology. The changes some of them propose would not only be very costly, absorbing funds that might better be used for more immediately obvious needs, but would impose an expansion of the government's regulatory apparatus, including the bureaucracy, by substantial amounts. Common sense and wise leadership will be needed within both the government and the scientific community if potentially great damage to our economy and social structure is to be averted.


Frederick Seitz ('54) is a physicist, author and teacher who is president emeritus of Rockefeller University where he served as President from 1968 to 1978. A former president of the National Academy of Sciences (1962-69), he has received numerous awards for service to the U.S. scientific community.

New High-Viscosity Mayonnaise To Aid In American Swallowing [Humor]

The Great PhD Scam -- the paper discusses the academic job market in the humanities, but is applicable to other fields as well...

Theory is also difficult for the layman to read, assigning technical and often unintuitive meanings to common words such as commodity, construction, figure, and spectacle. Like any specialized vocabulary, the language of cultural studies functions in part to assert the speaker's authority, to keep the in group in and the out group out. Tonight, McAlister is definitively telling the audience they're in. She deftly mixes the language of theory with enough explanation to make the masculinity of Tut intelligible to the large body of job-seekers with more classical interests -- all the while conveying the impression that the explanation is, of course, unnecessary, that she's reminding the audience of things they already know.

"It's pornographic," Todd Gilman, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, says (approvingly) of the mock interview; another candidate's interview, he says, is in real life "one of those moments that no one has access to." And, as in pornography, the distinction between watching this performance and fantasizing about one's own performance is intentionally blurred. McAlister's physical smallness; her straightforward, rural-inflected speech; even the peppily truncated spelling of her first name make her wholly unthreatening and unalienating to the audience -- a figure with whom everyone here can feel free to identify. You're meant to walk out of this thinking: "I have a great résumé. I am a cultural-studies jock. I'm smart and pretty and the focus of everyone's desire." And from the rapt look of the audience, it seems to be working.

... ... ...

Except for a brief boom in the late 1980s, the academic job market in the humanities has been shrinking for 20 years, and the flow of new PhDs has been on the rise for almost a decade. The National Research Council estimates that 923 people received PhDs in English in the 1993-'94 academic year (an increase of 20 percent from the trough in 1986-'87) and of these, only 42 percent are known to have tenure-track academic jobs now. The numbers for foreign languages are approximately the same.

Where are the rest? About a fifth are in non-tenure-track full-time positions; in other words, still on the market, this year or in years to come. Six percent have left the academy altogether. Ten percent are unemployed. Another eight percent are untrackable. And 10 percent hold part-time appointments: these are the adjunct faculty, working semester to semester, without benefits, often teaching courses at two or three colleges at once.

According to the American Association of University Professors, adjuncts make up close to half of college faculty members in the United States. With little time for research or publication, adjuncts are cut off from the main avenues for professional advancement. "I'm working like a dog just to have enough money to live on," says John Maguire, 49, who taught six English comp courses last fall, split between Berklee and Babson College. This semester he has five courses; next summer -- a comparative vacation -- just two. It adds up to about $39,000 a year, with no benefits. (According to Maguire, Berklee has agreed to a contract providing benefits to part-time workers, but is delaying implementation by "dither[ing] about the language.") Is he here on the market? "Yeah," he says. "Just like I'm on the market to win the Megabucks."

With such poor prospects ahead, why do new hopefuls keep entering the pipeline? It's certainly not the comforts of graduate school. Suppose, for instance, you start the English PhD program at Boston University. First of all, you can't just start; if you don't already have a master's degree, you'll have to complete BU's one-year MA, for which you will almost certainly have to pay tuition: at the moment, $20,702. After that, you've got about a 50-50 chance of being allowed to enter the doctoral program. (One BU student told me that the passage from the first program to the second was presented to him as "a formality" -- the university, he says, "uses that large MA class to fund itself.") For your first four years of doctoral study, you'll teach one course a semester and receive a $9500 stipend.

After that, the money disappears. Theoretically, you've finished your dissertation and are ready to graduate. One student estimated that one in five people are done after four years; another said she'd known one such person, ever. Suppose you're not done. You can still get a job as a lecturer and try to finish your degree while making $2600 a course -- no benefits. You'll be fighting for the lecturerships not only with your colleagues but with PhDs from other schools who didn't get full-time work, whom you'll probably begin to resent and hate, both because they're competing with you and because they remind you of a possible future you're trying to ignore. Students at BU feel their situation is worse than the norm, but it's not much better anywhere; at Yale and the University of California, it's been bad enough to drive the graduate students to strike.

The Big Crunch -- the paper has an interesting discussion of a link between "downsizing" and scientific honesty and ethical behavior.

The crises that face science are not limited to jobs and research funds. Those are bad enough, but they are just the beginning. Under stress from those problems, other parts of the scientific enterprise have started showing signs of distress. One of the most essential is the matter of honesty and ethical behavior among scientists.

The public and the scientific community have both been shocked in recent years by an increasing number of cases of fraud committed by scientists. There is little doubt that the perpetrators in these cases felt themselves under intense pressure to compete for scarce resources, even by cheating if necessary. As the pressure increases, this kind of dishonesty is almost sure to become more common.

Other kinds of dishonesty will also become more common. For example, peer review, one of the crucial pillars of the whole edifice, is in critical danger. Peer review is used by scientific journals to decide what papers to publish, and by granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation to decide what research to support. Journals in most cases, and agencies in some cases operate by sending manuscripts or research proposals to referees who are recognized experts on the scientific issues in question, and whose identity will not be revealed to the authors of the papers or proposals. Obviously, good decisions on what research should be supported and what results should be published are crucial to the proper functioning of science.

Peer review is usually quite a good way to identify valid science. Of course, a referee will occasionally fail to appreciate a truly visionary or revolutionary idea, but by and large, peer review works pretty well so long as scientific validity is the only issue at stake. However, it is not at all suited to arbitrate an intense competition for research funds or for editorial space in prestigious journals. There are many reasons for this, not the least being the fact that the referees have an obvious conflict of interest, since they are themselves competitors for the same resources. This point seems to be another one of those relativistic anomalies, obvious to any outside observer, but invisible to those of us who are falling into the black hole. It would take impossibly high ethical standards for referees to avoid taking advantage of their privileged anonymity to advance their own interests, but as time goes on, more and more referees have their ethical standards eroded as a consequence of having themselves been victimized by unfair reviews when they were authors. Peer review is thus one among many examples of practices that were well suited to the time of exponential expansion, but will become increasingly dysfunctional in the difficult future we face.

We must find a radically different social structure to organize research and education in science after The Big Crunch. That is not meant to be an exhortation. It is meant simply to be a statement of a fact known to be true with mathematical certainty, if science is to survive at all. The new structure will come about by evolution rather than design, because, for one thing, neither I nor anyone else has the faintest idea of what it will turn out to be, and for another, even if we did know where we are going to end up, we scientists have never been very good at guiding our own destiny. Only this much is sure: the era of exponential expansion will be replaced by an era of constraint. Because it will be unplanned, the transition is likely to be messy and painful for the participants. In fact, as we have seen, it already is. Ignoring the pain for the moment, however, I would like to look ahead and speculate on some conditions that must be met if science is to have a future as well as a past.

It seems to me that there are two essential and clearly linked conditions to consider. One is that there must be a broad political consensus that pure research in basic science is a common good that must be supported from the public purse. The second is that the mining and sorting operation I've described must be discarded and replaced by genuine education in science, not just for the scientific elite, but for all the citizens who must form that broad political consensus.

Basic research is a common good for two reasons: it helps to satisfy the human need to understand the universe we inhabit, and it makes new technologies possible. It must be supported from the public purse because it does not yield profits if it is supported privately. Because basic research in science flourishes only when it is fully open to the normal processes of scientific debate and challenge, the results must be available to all. That is why it is always more profitable to use someone else's basic research than to support your own. For most people it will also always be easier to let someone else do the research. In other words, not everyone wants to be a scientist. It follows that in order to serve the need of satisfying human curiosity we scientists must find a way to teach science to non-scientists.

That job may turn out to be impossible. The frontiers of science have moved far from the experience of ordinary persons. Unfortunately, we have never developed a way to bring people along as informed tourists of the vast terrain we have conquered, without training them to become professional explorers. If it turns out to be impossible to do that, the people may decide that the technological trinkets we send back from the frontier are not enough to justify supporting the cost of the expedition. If that happens, science will not merely stop expanding, it will die.

Let me finish by summarizing what I've been trying to tell you. We stand at an historic juncture in the history of science. The long era of exponential expansion ended decades ago, but we have not yet reconciled ourselves to that fact. The present social structure of science, by which I mean institutions, education, funding, publications and so on all evolved during the period of exponential expansion, before The Big Crunch. They are not suited to the unknown future we face. Today's scientific leaders, in the universities, government, industry and the scientific societies are mostly people who came of age during the golden era, 1950 - 1970. I am myself part of that generation. We think those were normal times and expect them to return. But we are wrong. Nothing like it will ever happen again. It is by no means certain that science will even survive, much less flourish, in the difficult times we face. Before it can survive, those of us who have gained so much from the era of scientific elites and scientific illiterates must learn to face reality, and admit that those days are gone forever.

Problems in Science Jobs -- classic paper on scientific tenure. Helps to understand related pressures.

When tenure is "offered" or "granted" to persons in tenure-track appointments, it usually occurs after one is at the assistant professor level for a trial period of usually 5-6 years, but can be at the associate professor level and after a shorter period. Tenure has different meanings depending on the institution. It can mean permanent employment for life, or it can mean very little. It all depends on the practices at a given institution. When one is denied tenure, it means one has to leave the institution. The lead time on this may be on the order of months.

You guys going for your PhD know you have a final exam, which in most cases is more formality than a serious danger. After that, your serious problems are usually funding and getting journal papers. But when you've been on a tenure-track slot for 5-6 years, and come up for tenure, it can be terrifying.

The important thing here is the real and finite risk of being denied tenure. This is devastating to science careers in the tight job market which exists today. This can happen if the review committee votes against you. Or, if the tenure committee votes for you, then it can happen if the chairman votes against you. Conversely, if the committee votes against you, the chairman can usually save you by overriding the committee vote. Lastly, the dean can accept or reject a chairperson's recommendation. I am now aware, first hand, of examples of all three possibilities.

A saving grace may be whether there is an procedure to appeal a decision to deny tenure. I know about one case where tenure was granted on appeal and one where it was not.

ON TENURE DENIAL RATES (anecdotal):

While tenure review is like a trial by fire which should weed out people of substandard competence, the more important thing here is that good people can be denied tenure on quite flimsy grounds. In my lifetime, my casual inquiries (i.e. asking, verbally, colleagues who I felt would give a frank opinion) allow me to give you the following information. Tenure denial rates can be from as low as one in ten (10%) to as high as one hundred percent. One chairman in a department in Philadelphia, I was told (by a person in another department), declined to recommend tenure for all (repeat, ALL) of six asst profs up for tenure that came through that department. At another department in the DC area, I was told by a tenured member in his department that all of the last three asst profs were denied tenure when they came up for it. To me, these are abnormally high rates. After all, search committees from those departments are supposed to be picking people likely to succeed.


TENURE DENIAL GROUNDS:

I would say that tenure review can follow two paths: fair and unfair. When it is fair, it is because reasonable standards were applied. Tenure in a science department of a typical research universities could only follow the award of grant(s) leading to a revenue inflow in the $150,000 to $300,000 per year range. In many if not most medical schools, promotions will be made more and more in the future without tenure. The danger comes in when such a department gets a new chairman. If that chairman develops a personal and/or professional dislike for your or your science, you could get fired. Forget teaching competence (except at pure teaching jobs). I've sometimes had better teachers who were later denied tenure than teachers who had tenure.

Unfair tenure review basically boils down to: i) you made enemies, or ii) people with power decide that they don't like you. If you have been at a place for your 5 years and didn't get at least one major grant (you have to get those journal papers too) by then, then they have a good reason to dump you. It may still be unfair considering that its getting very hard to get grants now. It is quite unfortunate that in an atmosphere where truth and wisdom and the quest for more of each, there is often a resort to barbaric, brutal, and intolerant feudalism. Competence and accomplishment can mean nothing. Personality, connections, politics, and power can mean everything.

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The Last but not Least


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Last modified: June 04, 2016