Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2007

Protecting the Integrity of Academic Work

By John Mueller
Universities have become contractors to the federal grant agencies, and academics thus are de facto federal employees, or prostitutes in some characterizations, says John Mueller. [Supplied Photo]
Universities have become contractors to the federal grant agencies, and academics thus are de facto federal employees, or prostitutes in some characterizations, says John Mueller. [Supplied Photo]
I would like to commend the Harry Crowe Foundation’s recent conference “Protecting the Integrity of Academic Work,” (Bulletin, November 2007) for considering some of the ways the integrity of scholarship is being challenged in today’s universities.

I realize space is limited and time is short, and that not all threats to academic integrity can be examined in a given year. One in particular is the “invisible hand” the federal funding agencies use to define the topics of academic research. This constraint seems routinely overlooked, as academics seem to see federal money as benign and desirable, an entitlement. Yet, the same principle operates when a private agency or foundation funds research in a particular area.

The difference between private funding and federal grants is that academics are critical of the constraints and strings attached to private money, appropriately enough, but uncritical about the constraints federal agencies impose. In contrast to the profit agenda that private funders impose, the federal agencies impose “politically useful” constraints on areas of inquiry, explicitly or implicitly.

The federal grants thus are just as short-term in their focus as is the profit motive, perhaps even more so, and the constraints involved are arguably more powerful because most academics do not even question them. This uncritical attitude is reinforced by university administrators who make no distinction — a dollar is a dollar — and so they tend to be receptive either way.

The current situation was clearly anticipated nearly 50 years ago, at least in the U.S.: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded,” said President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation on Jan. 17, 1961. In the category of inconvenient truths, there were both discoveries and problems solved before federal grants became widespread (e.g. polio vaccine), and also significant recent achievements without government aid (e.g. the human genome project). Unfortunately, neither the government nor universities heeded Eisenhower’s warning.

One may feel that special efforts to address women’s issues, aboriginal issues, HIV, bullying, global warming, and so forth, are worthy areas of inquiry. However, politicians and decisions made at the federal funding agencies don’t just target a research domain but often also the specific outcomes the research is expected to support, that is, data to justify a cause or policy. This is quite an insidious constraint indeed.

The Dependency Factor

Given the way universities have become so dependent on federal grants, academics find their promotion and merit reviews depend on buying into the predefined areas of interest — for example, whatever has morphed into the “cause de jour” at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This is especially problematic for young academics, because they lack perspective about alternatives and because they have little latitude for pursuits that do not have immediate cash benefit.

The result is that the proportion of research on campus that falls into the “free choice” category has surely declined over the years. Over the past generation, universities have become contractors to the federal grant agencies, and academics thus are de facto federal employees, or prostitutes in some characterizations.

At a general level, the past decade has produced a striking shift in favor of medical research grants because the public is perceived as favoring health research. These grants are much larger than in other areas, thus universities with medical schools have been drawn to medical research as budget solutions. In the process, resources and positions are reallocated from every school of the campus to the medical school in particular.

The advice from university managers to whiners in the social sciences and humanities, such as myself perhaps, is to find someone in the medical school with whom to collaborate, which speaks volumes to constraints on inquiry.

Strategy Reversal

The wisdom of the mandarins in the federal agencies to glean what is important to a discipline is quite suspect, but the lack of such expertise is not the only problem. The current funding strategies are alleged to rely on identifying a social problem and then funding research to fix it, the reverse of the historic strategy whereby a scholar develops an idea and then finds its application.

Whether these strategies are mutually exclusive is an open question, but there are plenty of precedents to establish that properly defining a problem will be at least as difficult as solving it. One is reminded of the parable about feeding someone a fish versus teaching them to fish as different solutions derived from an “obvious” problem.

Further, the actual behavior of the funders often seems more about peddling a specific solution, that is, finding a problem that requires the preconceived political or bureaucratic solution. On the other side, universities are not even trying the risky task of identifying a social problem and then seeking the wisdom to solve it. They are, instead, effectively chasing ambulances, with the problem as defined by a pot of federal money.

Similar questions can be raised about other funding fancies, for example, the frequent commitment to multi-center research efforts. These may make sense to bureaucrats eager to achieve a federal presence in various geographic regions, but the strategy doesn’t lend itself very well to the pattern of creative achievement in human history.

The history of genuine intellectual innovation is replete with the work of mere individuals, rather than teams, and individuals working at odds with conventional wisdom at that. One can be excused for thinking obligatory collaboration works better to provide sinecures rather than problem-solving cornucopias.

Ideological Constraints

It is unnecessary for the funding agencies to be conscious of their biases, although they often are. In either case even good intentions invariably have unintended consequences. The profit motive of private funders is acknowledged and open to scrutiny, which is very desirable, whereas these ideological constraints in federal funding are generally accepted on campus without scrutiny. The campus is not about freedom of inquiry any longer, it’s now about faculty as fundraisers, and that threat isn’t just from private funders seeking a profit. Universities have been bought, and our unwillingness to confront the consequences will yield ever more threats to academic integrity.

The growth in dependence of universities on federal funding has been the most striking change on campus over my own 40-year career. I am not talking about turning back the clock, although we might be closer to being able to do that if we had funded some other research areas. Nor will I try to offer some five-point program to address the issue as it deserves a more thorough treatment than simple sound bites.

Whatever the disposition may be, I think the first step has to be to acknowledge just how much federal funding has reshaped academic inquiry and defined the daily agenda on campus, and to evaluate the constraints of federal funding at least as critically as the profit motive of private funders. When it comes to constraints on inquiry, it is important to have many eyes and many voices.

There is certainly enough politicization of scholarship to leave room for scrutiny by CAUT, the Harry Crowe Foundation, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, disciplinary associations and others.

John Mueller is a professor of applied psychology at the University of Calgary.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Les opinions exprimées sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position officielle de l’ACPPU.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.