Politicians and constituents: Here’s why we do research (and why you should care)

Karcher11b-150-Parish1I’m from Texas, where we have our fair share of politicians who don’t get why we do research, how it funds the university system, and why research universities relieve rather than burden state budgets. It appears to me that many in government don’t seem to fully understand how the system and its institutions work to relieve state budgets. In particular, both here in Texas and in Wisconsin (where I was a professor before returning home to Texas), we’ve had Governors and Legislators who felt the universities were given too much tax money, taught too few classes, and had too much time to convert their children to liberals. (For a great treatment on this topic read “Don’t think like an Elephant,” by George Lakoff). Texas is under this assault-without-reason right now.

But equally important, the public doesn’t (and even many professors don’t) realize this rationale, nor that they should demand more from this system. Mentoring program staff deserve for this system to accommodate their needs for research related to mentoring programs and that it be disseminated in a public-friendly manner. It seems your tax dollars shouldn’t just support the government and the universities but also the larger society, the people who pay the taxes, and especially those like you who work hard to foster youth development in society.

In this essay, I want to explain to you why we do research and publish it as we do. This will explain how research supports the university and helps the federal research institutes and our state budgets. That alone may be useful. But I also want to suggest some limitations of this system, and in particular how this system does not really serve you as well as it should and what you can do to change this.

Short-sighted policies that seek to save money but costs states in the long run

Let me return to my experience with how misguided politicians are about research (which, again, is understandable given many of my colleagues miss this point). Before I left Wisconsin in 2002, there also were grumblings in the state legislature about too much money going to UW-Madison. UW-Madison is arguably one of the top universities in the world and the prize gem of the state. So budgetary constraints were applied to make the university tighten its belt. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but I think less than 20% of the operating budget of UW was state provided. Changes were put in place to squeeze more of out of state dollars (e.g., leaving less discretionary money available to retain top faculty with competitive job counter-offers). The result, a fair number of their world-class faculty left (including, I read, I think in the Chronicle of Higher Education, nearly the entire sociology department—then ranked #1 in the nation—who went largely to Rutgers following generous salary offers). If my numbers are off, please let me know.

A major consequence of this was that the top faculty who left the state university after these fiscal restraints were applied happened to be faculty who were very productive and received considerable money each year in federal grants. This brain drain was a financial strain that subsequently increased the demand on the state to make up for the lost income from federal research grants caused by the Governor’s and Legislators’ tightening the university’s belt (what Lakoff might call enacting a strict father style government).

Texas is now trying this, under the leadership of Rick Perry (who promises to leave next year). An article in Texas Monthly by Burk in 2012 explained that this has happened in Texas at least two earlier times in the 20th century. At both of those times, like now, UT-Austin was in the upper echelon of universities. (For instance, the College of Education, where I earned my Ph.D., surpassed Harvard as the number one school of education last year.) Following the fiscal tightening imposed by legislators, the author wrote, it took on average about 20 years for UT-Austin to regain is status as a top tier university. (I hope we can avoid repeating history.)

But I say all of this (not just because I am angry at those who make short-sighted decisions about the operations of institutions they [should but] do not understand), to highlight my point or argument about why we do research. For years, I have heard it was to “expand knowledge.” But if this was the true reasons, mentoring program practitioners would not have such a hard time understanding let along accessing research related to their work. Here is the real reason (IMHO).

Why the government funds researchers to conduct studies

Following the second word war, and specifically in response to the role that science and technology played in its conclusion (recall the atom bomb), and the threats perceived by the USSR reaching the moon before us, there was a concern in the government that we needed to remain a leader in technological and scientific innovation. (We also needed to ensure our children were prepared, through education, to enter and benefit from higher education. Another arena in which politicians continue to threaten the security and health of American citizens.)

So federal funding was designated to study a host of social and scientific problems, and stay on the cutting edge of knowledge related to rapidly advancing technologies and science discoveries related to national security. The National Institutes of Health, Justice, etc. were created to conduct some of this; but hiring scientists and building research facilities to address each question proved too costly, so the government decided to send a call to universities to see if their faculty could shoulder some of the burden of addressing these research topics. In exchange, a portion of the money provided by the government to address each research question by researchers at universities, beyond what was needed to do the work, was given to the universities without designated purposes. It is called “indirect costs.’ The direct costs are what the project costs to complete. This includes salaries, materials, lab/research equipment, etc.

How grant support for research helps the universities and taxpayers

The indirect costs are provided to the universities to do with as they see fit, but ostensibly to cover the “brick and mortar” costs to build or extend the university facilities to host the research and study. For federal grants, universities often get 40-50% of the direct costs in indirect money. So, if it costs 1 million dollars to “do” the study, a university may get $400,000 to “house” the study. These indirect costs often end up being used to build new buildings, which is one reason top research universities (and specifically the colleges within them that bring in the most money) typically have newer and nicer buildings than universities doing less research. It is these indirect costs that allow less of the money from state budgets to go to buildings and more to scholarships, endowments, and salaries to recruit and retain faculty. As you see, the more research that is done, the less money a given state needs to provide that university. For example, I think my UT campus receives almost twice the percentage of its budget than does UT-San Antonio (my home) because we generate less in research money than the flagship UT-Austin.

Now, some say, “Well that explains why you want grants but not why you should use published research in accessible journals as the indicator of professor productivity at research universities.” And here is where I see an important link that is unknown to many, even my colleagues, who also sometimes do not value the faculty role in and responsibility to engage in grantsmanship and its impact on university budgets. And I think it is a critical point to understand, because without it, the research done by university faculty can run the risk of becoming a major navel staring exercise. And this is something I try to teach my doctoral students early on in their research sequence. Faculty don’t do research because we think a topic is interesting or because without it we can’t get our full 2% merit raise each year.

We do research to answer questions about problems that affect a substantial proportion or substantially burdened group in society. That is why we do research. And we publish our research in the best possible journals so that when grant reviewers see “where” we have published they have some sense of the level of scrutiny that was applied in the vetting process—how thoughtfully the study, its methods, and its findings were. Details on the “peer review” process that research undergoes prior to publication is summarized clearly by Adar Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D. in her August 1st Chronicle article. This process helps to ensure that we all can have more faith in the validity of research results and the articles the get published.

How research can serve grant-makers more than the larger society

But, I think primarily we publish our findings so that, when we submit a grant proposal in response to a call for research on a given topic, reviewers of the different proposals can look at our resumes and see whether we have any track record of collecting data and generating high quality (trustworthy) findings. That helps reviewers know whether or not to feel safe awarding us a large grant to answer a question of importance to society. Our published research not only answers questions, but more directly, it provides a trail of evidence that we can be trusted to conduct the study and answer the question being asked.

Now, most likely you are a program staff and wondering, “Well, that’s great. But how does this help me?” And the fact is that in some ways it does not help you. Some of the most important research findings in mentoring, such as DuBois et al.’s (2002) meta-analysis of mentoring programs and practices, are so rigorous and detailed in their methods, and so clear in their analyses and checks to be sure analyses are trustworthy, that they appear to the average citizen (i.e., program staff) to have been written in another language. That is, if the program staff cannot even access the article (because these often can only be accessed through a subscription to a research journal or by using a library having access), how is it really helping society. In this way, this system is not set up to help you.

The mentoring field: A gold standard for research-practitioner collaboration

Please understand, or I hope you realize, that in the field of youth mentoring you have a much larger percentage of researchers who go over-and-beyond the call of academic duty to make sure their findings and others get to you. You should feel good about this, as no other professional field I know of is the researcher-practitioner link as strong as it is in mentoring. The Chronicle is one example of such a conduit of connecting researchers and their work with practitioners and their work. The Summer Institute at Portland State is another. I have been proud to be a mentoring researcher because I feel we as a group try our darndest to get our detailed findings summarized and into your hands. Without doing so, we all realize, our work really would be in vain.

So I conclude by underscoring that we need to do more to help you understand what we are doing, what findings have emerged from our research, and what the implications are for your very important work in the field may be. That is something we, the researchers, need to do more of. Yet we receive virtually no formal encouragement from universities to do this translation and dissemination work. (That is, beyond lip service when Deans, Provosts, and university Presidents encourage “reaching out to the larger community,” there are few “benefits” to faculty of translating research for the public, while there are significant benefits for producing research and getting it into the journals. We need your help to demand that tax dollars be spent not just on discovery but on dissemination and application in the world your world.

Is change possible and how can you help propel it?

Now you should better understand why we do what we do, even if you don’t always understand what we have done (assuming you can get your hands on a published article), and who it helps. You should see that our research-to-practice links are stronger than in most fields, but you understand better why it is not currently stronger. I hope you also see that we need your help. We need you to keep collaborating with us to help research inform practices. But we also need to find a way to reward researchers for “how research influences practice” more broadly, so that the “why” we do research can truly include the expansion to knowledge and betterment of society.