Research and the Financial Crisis – Yet Another Hard Landing

November 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

I’ve posted on the potential impacts of the worldwide economic slump on research before, but I find it worth revisiting in part because large swaths of those involved in research are not talking about it.  Hopefully this does not mean that they refuse to see the problem.  Some have taken the approach that its an opportunity to rehash old debates about insufficient research investment, but this seems particularly short-sighted.  I am disappointed to see the obsession with science policy as science budget policy has resolved into myopia over resources.  Longer-range thinking and planning seems a lot more necessary these days.  The end of the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget was botched from top to bottom, and I’m not persuaded anyone learned a thing.  In short, the biomedical research enterprise was on the leading edge of a different economic slowdown, and the response has been to turn up the volume on budget requests.  Nobody’s ready for drops in budget due to the current economic slowdown.

Nature appears to recognize the problem, and has a collection of articles and editorials (subscription required for most items) about various aspects of research and the current financial crisis.  I would start with the Special Report (no subscription for this one) from the 13 November issue.  It’s a thoughtful treatment of the various challenges this crisis presents, and a more realistic description of the chances researchers have to turn those challenges into opportunities.  It addresses the interaction of industry research (and research support) with the rest of the ecosystem.  But more careful thought and planning, like that hinted at in the Nature pieces, can’t start soon enough.  Some issues that will need extra attention over the next several years:

Infrastructure: Not only will building projects be delayed or slowed down, but tools and other equipment will not be replaced as quickly, or as often, as has been the custom.

Human Resources: The labor glut of postdocs will continue and expand, in all fields.  The trend away from tenure will likely continue as a means of containing costs.  As start-up costs increase, expect new faculty needing labs to get less and less support with their first position.

Technology/Knowledge Transfer: As companies feel the cruch, I expect that they will look more and more toward universities for their knowledge and technology.  While the increased attention will be welcome, managing these relationships can be difficult, as the interests of universities and industry aren’t always the same.  At the same time, the lockdown of capital will make it harder for entrepreneurial researchers to get funding for start-up companies.

There are no doubt other issues of concern.  For me the important thing is to make sure researchers, advocates and policy researchers are mindful of the challenges and opportunities, and think strategically in ways that have previously been absent.

4 Responses to “Research and the Financial Crisis – Yet Another Hard Landing”

  1. CurtFischer Says:

    /The labor glut of postdocs will continue and expand, in all fields. The trend away from tenure will likely continue as a means of containing costs. As start-up costs increase, expect new faculty needing labs to get less and less support with their first position./

    As a likely future post-doc and (hopefully) tenured faculty in chemical engineering, I find these trends worrying.

    Do you think the economic downturn will affect various funding sources differentially? Government money will be harder to get, but will the increase desire of companies to off-load their research mean it is easier to pick up industrial research dollars?

    Perhaps more importantly, you seem to think that the downturn in research dollars will hinder the research output of young PIs more than established PIs. At least, that’s what I infer from your point about an oversupply of Ph.D.s, decreasing dollar amounts for lab start-up packages, and lower tenture track openings. Supposing you are right, do you think this is the best outcome? What is the policy justification for any association at all between the number of tenured positions and total research funding?

    What’s a good source to find out more about policy and current thinking in this area?

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  3. David Bruggeman Says:


    You raise great points. I don’t think there’s a consensus – yet – on how the economic downturn will affect the community. That said, I would look for discussions of the pre-existing trends in academe and academic research to see where things stand. My thinking is that limited resources will exacerbate those trends that are – at least on the surface – done to constrain costs. To your more specific points:

    Government funding will be harder to get, but I don’t see industrial funding increasing as their bottom line will be affected as well (and their share of the national R&D funding landscape has shrunk for years – look at NSF Science and Engineering Indicators). It’s quite possible that industry may become more and more interested in taking advantage of existing academic research to stretch their limited R&D dollars.

    I think the resource crunch will affect younger PIs more because they don’t – as a rule – have grants or other means of support at that point in their career. The age of first career-making grant has been increasing, and new faculty do need some institutional support as they are standing up their academic efforts.

    As for any association between number of tenured positions and total research funding, that policy question is handled not by governments, but by universities and research institutes. Federal support shapes the environment where these policies are formed and implemented, but you have to look at individual universities and university associations to tease out what those policies are across the board.

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  5. CurtFischer Says:

    My understanding is that tenure is meant as a protection for faculty engaging in controversial speech or research.

    But it seems that in fact it is a marker for seniority or excellence that is used as a lever to preferentially attract research dollars.

    That’s not the worst thing in the world, I suppose, but it does seem like there is a disconnect between the policy justifications and the reality.

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  7. David Bruggeman Says:


    The effect you describe, the Matthew effect, is not strictly connected to tenure, but to reputation. While there may be a strong correlation between tenured faculty and grant recipients, the general trend is that those who have received grants in the past stand a better chance to receive grants/resources in the future. The same is true of institutions as well as individuals.

    However, I think a challenge in addressing this is that the underlying policy is geared toward getting top shelf research rather than keeping young scholars in business. There are programs geared toward young scholars (like the CAREER awards), but they won’t cover everybody. To the extent that there is explicit policy about scientific and technological human resources at the federal level, it ends once they get into higher education.