Imminent Collapse of Basic Science Under For-profit Model

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C PhD — © 2015

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Imminent Collapse of Basic Science Under For-profit Model

[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]

“…A collapse of America’s world-leading research is imminent if higher education adopts a purely for-profit financial model… And I caution the reader to distrust when the word ‘evolution’ is deployed to advertise laissez-faire investments in academia.”

Each time my students insist that natural selection, “Darwin‘s Theory” of 1859, is the “survival of the fittest,” I correct them, but futilely –in some cases— since this misconception has permeated into popular culture as an infectious catchphrase, an adverse “meme,” which continues to be reinforced by inadequate education.

Herbet Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), British intellectual, author of Principles of Biology (1864); in his book, Spencer used the phrase “survival of the fittest” in reference to Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection (1859). Image by Deansta.

It was polymath Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who, in 1864, introduced the expression “survival of the fittest” in Principles of Biology, one of Spencer’s many books in multiple fields, including philosophy, economics, sociology and politics.

Although Darwin did use Spencer’s term in the fifth edition of the Origin of Species (1869), for “accuracy” and “convenience,” since survival of the “most fit” paralleled nature, where the highly adapted organisms to the environment endured and left descendants, he never advocated for the abuse of the concept of natural selection in human affairs. Darwin knew better and alerted how the struggle for life could lead to the extinction of entire populations and species.

The cut-throat economists of the late 19th century in the United Kingdom, United States and Western Europe, however, did see in Darwin’s work the “biological, natural foundations” to justify “laissez-faire capitalism,” or the freedom to do as they will in the market; to become most financially robust, via “competition,” and, thus, overpower the “unfit,” whose survival became their own fiscal responsibility. This twisted view of social existence, popular among Victorian financiers of the 1870s, still sanctions the contemporary accretion of wealth by the top 0.1%, which, in the United States, is almost the same as the entire bottom 90%.

The reality above concerns me as a citizen of our interdependent world since laissez-faire economic policies have generated the most inequality in the United States since the 1940s. But what further worries me, as an evolutionary biologist, is the current and contagious misuse of Darwinian terminology to characterize trends of institutional development at colleges and universities. And I caution the reader to distrust when the word “evolution” is deployed to advertise laissez-faire investments in academia.

A collapse of America’s world-leading research is imminent if higher education adopts a purely for-profit financial model (watch documentary Ivory Tower). I will restrict my analysis of this complex phenomenon to highlighting some crucial points.

According to the National Science Foundation Enterprise Information Systems, more than 70% of the research awards (by amount received) are granted annually to the top 100 academic institutions in the United States. The top 50 institutions take more than half of the awards; the top 10 take about 15%; and all other institutions take roughly 25%. This trend has remained steady from 2005 to 2013. In essence, the non-ranked institutions have low probability of capturing meaningful, competitive extramural support –one quarter of it is “catchable” via competition among all such institutions in the country.

NSF Awards to Academic Institutions 2013

Percentage of Awards to Academic Institutions (by amount received). On average, more than 70% of NSF awards go to the top 100 academic institutions in the United States. Source: NSF Enterprise Information Systems – October 1, 2013

Within the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) at NSF, which oversees funding in the bio-sciences, there was a 43% increase in the yearly amount of grants submitted from 2001 (less than 1,500 proposals) to 2010 (just above 2,000 proposals). Yet IOS-NSF decreased funding by 14% during the same decade. In fact, by 2014, the IOS-NSF overall success rate of awarded proposals was 8.2%.

IOS Proposal Submissions and Awards 2001 to 2010

Integrative Organismal Systems Proposal Submissions and Awards: 43% increase in proposal submissions and 14% decrease in funding (2001 to 2010). Source: IOS-NSF

IOS-NSF funding trends

Analysis of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) Preliminary Proposal Submission System at NSF. Rationale of data: 29.8% = 547 / 1,836; 27.6% = 175 / 634; and 8.2% corresponds to 150 projects ultimately awarded by NSF (= 150 / 1,836). Source: IOS-NSF

The situation for under-represented minority investigators, who conduct research in fields within the IOS-NSF sponsoring scope, continues to be disturbing: while success rate in funding increased from 4% to 7%, from 2008 to 2011, respectively, it decreased to below 6% in 2012 and 2013.

NSF funding Under Represented Investigators

Awards to Under-Represented Investigators. Less than 6% of the awards go to minority researchers. Source: IOS-NSF

But the major problem goes beyond the historically scarce funds for research. Instead, it relies on shifting from basic science –which generates new knowledge, is profound, bold, risk-taking and impactful long-term— to valuing mostly applied, profitable, safe translational work (= development spending) that benefits society in the short-term and can be “sold” to the taxpayer under the slogan that higher education and its research are “evolving” in such worthy direction.

Why should such a model of promised prosperity work at academic institutions when it already failed at the national market-oriented economy, and at a rate of 0.1% (top) versus 90% (bottom)? Why would it create sustainable research at non-ranked universities if it is destined to benefit the top 100, and at a rate of 70% (top) versus 25% (bottom)? It does not make scientific sense to imitate such a path under the vision of “survival of the richest.” But it can, of course, create the illusion that, as long as we believe in it, or try it, most of us will join the elite.

And, as per “evolution,” let us evoke it when we actually understand the concept of gradual change with modification and ancestry, driven by the laws of nature, and explained to our students and the public by competent scholars, not by the whim of the wealthy. — © 2015 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

Suggested Articles in Peer-reviewed Journals, plus an undergraduate honors thesis (!):

Unlikely Funding – BioScience 2014

Reforming Science: Structural Reforms -IAI Journal 2012

Funding Troubles for Evolution and Ecology – Current Biology 2011

Lost in Translation: Basic Science in the Era of Translational Research – IAI Journal 2010

And my favorite, an Honors Thesis by undergraduate Sam Shapiro Federal R&D: Analyzing the Shift from Basic and Applied Research toward Development – Department of Economics, Stanford University 2013

Recommended Documentary & Books:

Books About Ivory Tower

Related Articles:

Dehumanizing Academia by Dismantling the Humanities

Fragmentary Truths and the Intellectual Imbalance in Academia

Evolution Illiteracy at America’s Colleges and Universities

Massachusetts Gets an A- in Science Standards

The Incompatibility Hypothesis: Evolution vs. Supernatural Causation

Reviews of Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars