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wtf uw 2: the new wisconsin idea is money

Back in 1999, when I interviewed for my first faculty job (in the biostatistics department at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health), I got to meet with the Dean, Al Sommer. He talked about how collegial the faculty are at Hopkins, and also about his work on vitamin A, which showed that an inexpensive vitamin A supplement aimed at reducing childhood blindness had the surprising result of also reducing mortality.

I remember I asked him two questions: Why were faculty at Hopkins so collegial (he thought it was because they didn’t have to compete with each other for promotion), and why did he leave his important research efforts to become a Dean (he didn’t fully leave research, and he felt like he could have an even bigger impact by helping to enable others’ work).

In my eight years at Hopkins, I really felt like the focus was on the work itself and the impact it was having, like the efforts to eradicate smallpox and polio. There was the whole Bloomberg business and the expensive new school logo, but even the discussion of the “anonymous” $100 million donation for a malaria center (at least the part that wasn’t about Bloomberg) was focused on the possibility of eradicating malaria.

Early in my time at Hopkins, a number of us junior biostatistics faculty had a mentoring meeting with Ron Brookmeyer, at which he suggested that if you were choosing between writing a substantial methods paper and writing a grant, he would recommend writing the paper. It would have a bigger impact and would make it easier to get that next grant.

That’s not advice that I can imagine being given here at UW-Madison. Maybe I was just naive, but I really felt like people at Hopkins were focused on the work first and the money to enable the work second. Here there’s a lot of talk of the Wisconsin Idea and sifting and winnowing, but the New Wisconsin Idea seems to be money.

The Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (VCRGE) gives an annual presentation to the Faculty Senate about the state of campus research. These types of presentations can be expected to focus on money (where do we rank in terms of research expenditures in relation to other universities and what can we do to reverse our sliding position), but I’ve been surprised that the focus is solely on money. In 2020 (back when we could meet in person), he said that Centers and Institutes bring in the big dollars and so to improve our research rankings we should have more Centers and Institutes. This year he emphasized faculty involvement on COVID-related research, but rather than discuss the work itself (which would be of immediate interest to all of us), he just emphasized how they’d taken advantage of COVID-related research opportunities to bring in X million dollars in new funding.

At a discussion among faculty who were forming a new Center, the interim director started a list of Opportunities on the white board, and the first thing on the list was money. How can we use the Center to get more money to support our own research?

There was an opportunity for grants for workshops on reproducible research, but each campus was allowed to submit just one proposal. Another group was submitting the proposal, and I was asked about my involvement in the effort. Because “if the proposal fails then it’s no skin off our noses by not engaging, but if it goes through then we’re probably out of the game at least in terms of NIH funding. In that case we could still participate though with no funding for that mandate unless it’s built in now.” What mattered was not to have the best possible training available, or even to help our colleagues to write a successful proposal, but just to get some of the money.

More generally, I’ve felt that with graduate education, there has been a much bigger focus on getting NIH training grants than on actually improving the graduate curriculum itself. We don’t take time to talk about how we might improve the existing courses (which is hard); rather we focus on how to spin the existing curriculum into something that sounds good in a grant proposal.

Our department meetings now start with announcements of grants that people have gotten. We don’t talk at all about papers people have published, or talks or workshops people have given, or cool results or software tools. Just grants.

Again, maybe I have just been naive, and maybe I’ve just grown into this awareness that scientific research is focused on money first and results second. Johns Hopkins and UW-Madison differ in a lot of ways, and a lot of things have changed in my 14 years in Madison, and so sure this probably isn’t a UW-Madison-specific problem. But I feel like academic research here has lost its way. In focusing on research expenditures as the key measure of research productivity, they’ve forgotten that the money is in order to do stuff, and it’s the doing of the stuff that should matter, not the money.

I’ve focused on extreme cases. People here do care about the work itself. But so many slip into the trap “good science is big science,” and the celebration of money can be so blatant.