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January 02, 2013 10:00 AM Research Prowess of U.S. Colleges Is Exaggerated

By Richard Vedder

U.S. college presidents make no apologies for their schools’ support for research. After all, American institutions dominate global surveys of universities, and most lists put a big emphasis on research accomplishments.

Of the 20 top schools for 2012 on the widely used Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings, for example, 17 are American. Colleges are “carefully evaluated using several indicators of research performance.”

Yet there has been little scrutiny of whether most of this research on campuses today is worth it.

Historically, a lot of basic and some applied research at U.S. universities has paid off, with many advances in computer and biomedical sciences. Science, however, like virtually everything else in life, is subject to the law of diminishing returns. As more and more resources are added to producing something, less and less additional output occurs at the margin.

The first $10 billion in annual federal research support for higher education probably yields a bigger payoff than the second, third or fourth $10 billion increment. Committees disbursing funds at the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation rank proposals and finance those for which resources are available, knowing that the 10th proposal approved is less likely to be scientifically or commercially as promising as the first or second one.

Applied Research

U.S. total research spending was estimated at $436 billion for 2012, in a forecast done by the Battelle Memorial Institute, absorbing $2.85 of every $100 of U.S. output. What may come as a surprise is how little of the work is directly financed by universities themselves — about 3 percent of the U.S. total, according to the National Science Foundation.

Nor are U.S. universities conducting most of this work, either. More than 80 percent of research dollars in the U.S. goes to applied research and development, very little of which is financed or carried out in university facilities, but in corporate laboratories.

Although most basic research (investigations of fundamental principles, rather than the commercial application of ideas) occurs in university laboratories, about 40 percent takes place in nonacademic industrial settings. Some of it occurs at federal government-owned research centers managed by universities, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Yet far less than 30 percent of university faculty is in the hard sciences and engineering fields that receive the vast majority of outside research funds. The work that takes place on campus is supported largely by giving faculty ever-lower teaching loads. A recent survey of 30,000 faculty by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles shows an increase in the proportion of faculty with very low teaching loads. In 2007-08, only 7 percent of American faculty members taught less than four hours a week. By 2011-12, this figure had risen to almost 15.6 percent, according to the UCLA study, and at private universities it exceeds 31 percent.

This work might be worth it if a lot of high-quality or influential material was produced. The evidence, however, shows this isn’t the case.

The professors may be teaching less, but they aren’t exactly spending much time on research, either. The UCLA survey shows that almost 62.6 percent of faculty members spend fewer than eight hours a week on research endeavors. The typical professor surveyed publishes only about one paper a year, mostly for low-circulation academic journals.

Shakespeare Industry

A study conducted by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity examined the publications of 156 faculty members in English departments at four high-quality state schools (the State University of New York at Buffalo and the universities of Georgia, Illinois and Vermont). The study shows that “there is a glaring mismatch between the resources these universities and faculty members invest and the impact of most published scholarship.”

For example, one essay on Shakespeare appearing in a volume of essays in 2004 collected one citation in the 111 books written on Shakespeare in the years 2008 and 2009. Four other essays on Shakespeare didn’t receive a single citation.

Do we really need one book a week written on the Bard (the 400th anniversary of whose death is in 2016)? What is the point of subsidizing scholarly writing that virtually no one reads or cites? Maybe society would be better off if English professors had done more teaching and less researching, perhaps helping to keep college costs lower.

Defenders of the emphasis on research argue that it strengthens teaching. Tell that to the thousands of students paying for classes taught by inexperienced adjunct teachers and graduate students because their professors are off writing one of the almost 1,000 articles a year published on Shakespeare that very few people read. An analysis of 58 studies dealing with university research and teaching by John Hattie and H.W. Marsh concluded there is zero relationship between research and teaching. Or, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it in 1853 in “The Idea of a University”: “To discover and to teach are distinct functions.”

If too much university research is of dubious value and also doesn’t enhance the quality of teaching, a strong case can be made to reverse the gradual reduction of classroom time, and the shift toward research in the past half-century. Incentives are out of whack. Universities get generous overhead funds from federal research grants, and those who publish receive larger salary increases.

Richard Vedder , a regular contributor to Bloomberg View, directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University.

Comments

  • Steve LaBonne on January 02, 2013 10:41 AM:

    The author teaches a subject that is itself of such dubious value (either scholarly or real-world) that it should be eliminated from the course catalog. Thus, his opinion is worth little.

  • Dave Mazella on January 02, 2013 5:07 PM:

    So why is the head of a right-wing think tank given a megaphone to denounce American public universities for their research?

    The research expectations for American universities were formed by post-WWII federal funding policies that supported R&D and the states' decision to slowly defund their own higher ed support. Public universities sink money into research because there is ever-declining support for educational access; states regularly demand teaching larger numbers with fewer resources. So why blame the universities for the consequences of federal and state spending policies?

  • Walker on January 02, 2013 7:10 PM:

    Lots of garbage statistics in this post. Throw out a bunch of numbers and pretend they mean something.

    For example, we see that 31% of faculty are four hours or under. And 62.6 percent spend less than 8 hours on research. So about 37.6 spend over 8 hours on research. This starts to line up a bit now.

    Add in there that this survey includes faculty from a wide range of universities. You have the research-focused universities that have a teaching load of one or two courses a semester (and no one with one paper a year is going to last here). Then you have the smaller colleges where three courses a semester are more the norm. Indeed, those are where professors can get by with one paper a year. To do less than that, you have to teach 4 or 5 a semester. All of this glossed over here.

    This also ignores the out of class time spent on the course. For example, a 4 credit hour course might be a 300 person introductory course with just one lecture section and 10 discussion sections; this requires a massive staff of TAs managed by the faculty member.

    Now, there is an argument to be made for diminishing returns. If you talk to any of the major high techs like Google, they want PhD programs for the training they provide, not the product they produce.

    But a statistically illiterate and poorly argued post like this is not going to advance that issue.

  • Russell Sadler on January 02, 2013 7:54 PM:

    Paul,

    You have more productive uses for your limited space than printing intellectual swill from this Libertarian shill. This, like so much "conservative" research, is thinly-disguised "oppo research -- cherry-picking dubious statistics and other academic trappings to clothe the foundation donors' preconceived political prejudices with a patina of academic legitimacy. This junk "research" cries out for legitimate peer review.

  • Steve on January 02, 2013 8:25 PM:

    I didn't realize that Washington Monthly printed humor pieces.

  • NancyP on January 02, 2013 9:49 PM:

    Nowhere does it state that faculty members with 4 hours or less of teaching responsibility are full time liberal arts or pre-professional faculty members. The statistics could count adjunct faculty who teach night courses, medical faculty who have minimal teaching loads in medical coursework and who spend most of their time teaching interns/residents (graduates).
    This is a useless article.

  • Will on January 02, 2013 10:12 PM:

    One very important aspect of this issue that Richard has neglected to mention is the role of graduate students in the academic research university. While you suggest a disconnect between research and education, you fail to recognize that graduate students are the ones who are most clearly being educated by research funding. It is these students who are entering the workforce and becoming leaders of industry and business and are driving American innovation. The academic and research training afforded by the NSF and other national funding agencies granted to the graduate student population are directly feeding American success on many fronts.

  • WillO on January 02, 2013 10:13 PM:

    One very important aspect of this issue that Richard has neglected to mention is the role of graduate students in the academic research university. While you suggest a disconnect between research and education, you fail to recognize that graduate students are the ones who are most clearly being educated by research funding. It is these students who are entering the workforce and becoming leaders of industry and business and are driving American innovation. The academic and research training afforded by the NSF and other national funding agencies granted to the graduate student population are directly feeding American success on many fronts.

  • Mark Reimers on January 03, 2013 9:03 AM:

    I would be ashamed to belong to a community that replies to criticism with a mixture of personal invective and allegations of political bias.
    The author questions a key assumption of university allocation of effort, clearly relevant to our stretched resources, and provides modest arguments in the form of data and expert opinion. He deserves better in response, even if he is wrong.
    In my opinion, scholarship and engagement with current issues in a field often enriches teaching, though not so clearly for basic technical subjects such as calculus and mechanics. However I do not believe that scholarship is equivalent to publishable research - an equation often made in these discussions.

  • RSA on January 03, 2013 9:07 AM:

    This [research] might be worth it if a lot of high-quality or influential material was produced. The evidence, however, shows this isnít the case.

    And as evidence we have... a Bloomberg opinion piece and a non-peer-reviewed policy paper from Vedder's own organization. Weak.

    The meta analysis, with its "zero relationship between research and teaching," is more interesting, but it also has limitations. Hattie and Marsh: "The most common form of indicator of teaching effectiveness was student evaluations (80%), followed by peer evaluations (19%) and very few self-ratings (1.4%)." A more accurate summary is that there's no relationship between instructor research and undergraduate student evaluations. Hattie and Marsh do find a positive relationship in the field of education. Great--we might all take education classes and become better teachers. That could be worthwhile. But in the end what we really need to know is whether researchers in the classroom are helping students learn, and student evaluations only give part of the picture.

  • angler on January 03, 2013 9:48 AM:

    For goodness sakes. The punchline to this essay is the tired attack on English and the humanities, but none of the stats link lower teaching loads and NSF funding to those fields. As others point out, sub-four hour teaching loads in the humanities are rare and the total federal budget for the NEH last year was $146 million, down $8M from the year before. That money is peanuts in terms of the total federal budget and almost nothing compared to the nearly $7 billion allocated to the National Science Foundation last year. Beat up on the humanities all you want, but if you think eliminating research in these fields will make a significant dent in academic costs, keep dreaming.

    Meanwhile, a book a week on Shakespeare seems low given his influence on western culture.

  • reidmc on January 03, 2013 1:34 PM:

    The main argument made by the writer (see his last paragraph) is a reasonable one. But it't not well-supported by his post.

    The flogging of English scholarship reminds me of those folks who think (or more accurately, want to make others think) that US foreign aid is responsible for our budget deficit.

  • POed Lib on January 03, 2013 9:01 PM:

    Absolutely first rate stuff here. As an academic who has published well over 100 articles with many collaborators in the medical research field, I can attest to the STUPENDOUS amount of crap being published today. The problems are many. There are new journals being founded every day which exist simply to extract publication fees from authors to publish, and which no one reads because no one knows of them. The amount of articles that many people publish are ridiculous. In some areas (cardiology), probably 10,000 articles will be published this year, and most of it will be twaddle that is repetitive, irrelevant, and a huge waste of trees and search engine time.

    Excessive publication is a huge problem.