Looking for Excuses to Do Something Good

July 2, 2009 at 3:18 pm 2 comments

David Klappholz sent me a link to an article in Sunday’s New York Times (early enough that I was able to purchase that issue and read it on my Kindle — cool!) on how the grants system in cancer research favors incremental progress over revolutionary process. David suggested that perhaps NSF is a target for similar complaints, like in those I was responding to in a recent blog post.  I think the NYT article is pointing out a different set of problems than those I was responding to earlier, and I do think that the NYT points are well-taken.  The NYT article points to general problems of how research and higher-education work today.

My colleague, Blair MacIntyre, stopped me yesterday to tell me about a cool new class he wants to build.  He wants to create a class that becomes an excuse for students to do something good.  He doesn’t want the class to have explicit learning objectives or a set curriculum.  Rather, it’s a commitment for a student to produce a great game (in this particular case) to add to their portfolio.  It’s too easy to give up a cool idea when things get hard.  Blair’s idea is for students to sign up for this course, and then have to complete the course (i.e., build the game that she committed to building) despite the midterms and pressures from other courses that arise.

Blair’s idea brought to mind a message that I got from Alan Kay (to whom I still owe a complete response — sorry, Alan!) asking (paraphrased), “This new computing education organization — will it actually lead to computing education reform?  Will it lead to something really good?”  And my response was (paraphrased), “Probably not.”  The new computing education organization is important in terms of gathering momentum in a common direction and developing infrastructure, which are good things.  The new organization is not going to lead to transformative new ideas in curriculum, or to new kinds of tools that build on how students understand and need to understand computing.

And that brings me back to David’s article.  Higher education is an ecosystem, if not a business.  Money needs to keep pumping through to keep the system running, and it’s important to keep the system running.  The demands to bring money into this system via grants are increasing.  I’m personally dealing with the expectation from my School that I bring in four months of my own salary from grants each year, and the NSF new rule that they will only pay two months of salary for any faculty member, thus requiring me to find new sources of funding.  There are lots of faculty seeking grant money for similar reasons.  Thus, with more people requesting money, and increasing need for that money, the tendency is to become more and more conservative — greater demands from review panels for proof that the project will be successful, which leads to smaller increments of “success.”  It’s pretty hard to assure a review panel that something transformative or revolutionary will really work.

So, when do university researchers get the chance to do good work, the work that might cure cancer or find new ways to improve student understanding of computing?  There’s more demand to get grants, and the grant process does prefer incremental success rather than transformative.  Faculty are expected to also be involved in the committees and infrastructure work which address issues of students and policy.  How do we create the excuses to do something good?  They’re probably not going to come from the grants process.  The projects in which I’ve been involved that I think are the most successful were pretty much all unfunded at their start.  These were things that were worth doing, and we decided that they were worth getting into trouble by not doing the things that we were expected to be doing.  That’s risky and harder to do as pressures for faculty productivity increase.  We need to find ways of creating excuses for doing good work.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  July 2, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    I went to a panel called “Big Ideas in Science” at this year’s Conference on World Affairs at C.U. Boulder. A complaint I heard from Susan Love, one of the panelists, was just on this topic, “a cure for cancer”, and the lack of the pursuit of big ideas in medical science. She’s with UCLA and it sounded like she was describing how things work in the U.C. system. She said the way that Ph.D.’s get tenure is they find some research that a professor who’s tenured has already worked on and then do incremental research on that. This leads to work on areas of narrow focus, like a particular set of proteins, rather than looking at the big picture (“biology in pieces” is the best I can sum up her complaint). They do this several times before they get a chance at tenure. Big ideas are discouraged, because they would be a departure from what tenured faculty has worked on. If such an idea were to be proposed the candidate wouldn’t get off the ground with it for lack of faculty support and funding.

    She said some students might come into this process with the idea that once they get tenure THEN they’ll pursue their big idea. She said even that doesn’t work, because the culture of the institution, and the incentives that are set up, encourages you to do the same thing that the other tenured faculty do, and before long you’re thinking like them. When the next set of Ph.D.’s come along, hoping for tenure, you’ll treat them the same way you were treated. She made it sound like a patronage system.

    What you talk about here fills in more of the picture.

    I’ve heard of something similar in the software world, in the private sector. A few years back I listened to a podcast with Philip Greenspun on the opportunities and risks of commercial open source development. He said that investors/companies that use IT were wary of investing in the development of new software infrastructure. They deemed it too big of a risk to invest in something that big that was being developed from scratch. So what some entrepreneurs were doing was investing their own time and money in developing open source software. Once they got a base version ready they’d make it open and freely available for anyone to download and use, and would charge customers to customize it to whatever they desired. The idea was the producer took on the sole risk of “big lift” development, and customers would only pay for incremental improvements to it. From the NYT article it sounds like some scientists have followed a similar path WRT the NSF, except they found unconventional funders for their research.

    Reply
  • 2. Mark Miller  |  July 3, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I found the ending of the NYT article real interesting:

    Some experienced scientists have found a way to offset the problem somewhat. They do chancy experiments by siphoning money from their grants.

    “In a way, the system is encrypted,” Dr. Yamamoto said, allowing those in the know to wink and do their own thing on the side.

    I read about a software developer doing this inside an IT operation last year. Rather than putting forward a proposal for his big idea (which he knew would be rejected) he worked on it on the side, little by little. He seemed to have temporary success with that approach. The only problem was people liked what his “big idea” could do to solve a class of problems, but nobody understood how he did it. The main reason was no one was interested in the idea to begin with, until they saw it work, but their mindset prevented them from even being curious about it. Instead they just saw him as someone who was valuable to have around.

    His experience in the small raises a question that’s probably worth pondering, “What is a big idea worth if the person who came up with it is the only one who understands how they arrived at it?” I’m sure it’s worth something, but in a situation like this its full potential is likely to be lost until the rest of society, through their own slow process, comes to learn the same lessons the inventor of the idea did.

    Reply

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