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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2010

A specious spin

We were intrigued by Thomas Tiedje’s commentary “Is your ranking holding you down?” (Bulletin, October 2010). It is worthwhile stating at the outset that our view is not the same as Disraeli’s/Twain’s: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” We believe data and statistics should form the basis of decision making whenever possible.

First some ire: The primary goal of the university is the education of students. In its entirety it is the only aspect of the university that can be justified to the taxpayer. “Education” is not mentioned in Tiedje’s article. Research, on which he does concentrate, is only one piece of the education pie and a very costly piece at that.

Second, some reasoning: Tiedje uses three measures to achieve what he feels is a more reasonable indicator of what constitutes a high ranking research university: a modified ARWU set of criteria that weighs factors such as total publications, highly cited researchers, and papers in snob journals; the second, a measure former Ontario premier Bill Davis called “more scholar for the dollar”(total research output per total research dollars held by the university); and third, a measure similar to the second — total research output per total number of faculty at the university.

Tiedje’s university scores highest by the third set of criteria; our university scores highest by the second. Ergo, neither he nor we are disinterested parties, but we would argue it is both a fool’s argument and a dialogue of the deaf.

The idea that we should put the most faith in total research output per total faculty is specious. Research productivity of an individual is a function of age as well as many other factors. Statistically, we tend to peak somewhere between the ages of 45 and 55. The faculty’s productivity is necessarily a function of the average age of the faculty body and whether faculty were hired with a view of publish or perish, or three grants or perish, or one research agency grant or perish.

If it’s decided that the only thing that matters is publishing, then you wind up with a faculty with a given set of characteristics. Similarly when grants are the only important criteria.

The idea that we should put a lot of faith in total research output per total dollars is more logical, but once again hides more than it reveals. On the logical side, our faculty teach, and teach a lot more than do the faculty in the big-grant schools. We have some that do their own work in the lab, but that is true of research nerds (the two of us) at all schools. Most research directors sit in their offices and stare at their monitors, no matter the school. Our research groups tend to be smaller and more focused than many larger groups if that matters.

Tiedje says one view that seeks to detract from the second set of criteria is that small-grant faculty are paid by the university to teach, but do research at the same time. They take no money out of their grants for salary. Ergo, the university subsidizes research at the small-grant schools. He repeats the argument that this is not necessarily the case at the big-grant schools where some salary money may come from the principal investigator’s grant.

It would have been useful for Tiedje to back up the claim with data, but we suspect the data wouldn’t authenticate the claim.

Finally, we should not be wasting our time on questions about ranking. We should accept that not everyone nor every university can be above average and that if we remove the bottom there is another bottom that takes its place. If we as a group decide to question whether granting agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research are doing a poor job in spending tax-payers’ dollars, we should debate how it can be improved. We should then demand the next government change the way these agencies apportion money.

Jack & M. Judith Kornblatt
Biology, Chemistry & Biochemistry
Concordia University

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