More researchers? Less researchers?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Compare these two.

First this:

I recall John Cochrane once shrugging at bad macro models, saying something like “Well, assistant profs need to publish.” OK, but what’s the impact of that on public trust in science? The public knows that a lot of psych research is B.S. They know not to trust the latest nutrition advice. They know macroeconomics basically doesn’t work at all. They know the effectiveness of many pharmaceuticals has been oversold. These things have little to do with the tribal warfare between liberals and conservatives, but I bet they contribute a bit to the erosion of trust in science.

Of course, the media (including yours truly) plays a part in this. I try to impose some quality filters by checking the methodologies of the papers I report on. I’d say I toss out about 25% of my articles because I think a paper’s methodology was B.S. And even for the ones I report on, I try to mention important caveats and potential methodological weaknesses. But this is an uphill battle. If a thousand unreliable results come my way, I’m going to end up treating a few hundred of them as real.

So if America’s professors are really being incentivized to crank out crap, what’s the solution? The obvious move is to decouple research from teaching and limit the number of tenured research professorships nationwide. This is already being done to some extent, as universities rely more on lecturers to teach their classes, but maybe it could be accelerated. Another option is to use MOOCs and other online options to allow one professor to teach many more undergrads.

Many people have bemoaned both of these developments, but by limiting the number of profs, they might help raise standards for what qualifies as a research finding. That won’t fully restore public trust in science – political tribalism is way too powerful a force – but it might help slow it’s erosion.

Or maybe I’m completely imagining this, and academic papers are no more full of B.S. than they ever were, and it’s all just tribalism and excessive media hype. I’m not sure. But it’s a thought, anyway.

And then this, about the decline in funding for High Energy Physics:

A couple weeks ago a large group of US HEP theorists wrote a letter to the DOE High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) (available at page 7 here) expressing alarm at trends in DOE funding of HEP theory, ending with

We formally request that a subpanel of HEPAP be formed to investigate and better understand this damaging trend and to make recommendations to address its consequences and restore a thriving Theory program, and we strongly urge that HEPAP support measure to rebuild and maintain the prominent and world-leading standing of US High Energy Theoretical Physics.

The letter claims that since 2011 the overall DOE HEP Theory program has been cut by 17%, with the university component of this cut by 30%. It also claims that 25% of DOE-supported university theorists have had their funding cut off in the last four years, with the number of postdocs going down by about 30%.

At last week’s HEPAP meeting there was a discussion of this, but I don’t know what was decided. Some numbers presented there indicated that from FY2013-2015. the DOE theory budget went from $51.2 million to $49.32 million. The net number of funded PIs was reduced by more than 10% (25 out of about 230), with 52 PIs dropped, 27 new ones coming in. The conclusion of that presentation was that “The theory program in its current state cannot be described as thriving.” The emphasis in the letter and this presentation on “thriving” is a reference to one of the P5 recommendations that is supposed to be governing how the DOE HEP budget is allocated:

The U.S. has leadership in diverse areas of theoretical research in particle physics. A thriving theory program is essential for both identifying new directions for the field and supporting the current experimental program.

The most detailed recent information I can find about the DOE HEP theory budget is in this presentation from August. It shows a decline from FY10 to FY16 from $53.09 million to $46.69 million, with most of this in the component going to university groups, which went from $27.25 million to $21.765 million. The current number of postdocs supported is listed as about 125 (100 at universities, 25 at the labs), the number of graduate students is about 120.

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