Research Produces Researchers

The role of the government in scientific research is commonly debated. Should tax money go towards the funding of scientific research?

To be honest, I never really put much thought into it; I just assumed it was a good idea and that most people would agree. However, it seems there are a wide range of opinions on the subject and some recommend cutting research funding altogether. Many of the arguments are made in terms of economics. Some argue publicly funded research provides tremendous returns, while others argue that economic benefits are far less than privately funded research.

There are many potential arguments for and against publicly funded academic research, but I want to discuss one benefit of academic research that is commonly overlooked. Training.

I am speaking mainly from my experience in Computer Science; your milage may vary in other fields. The majority of papers published feature a graduate student as the lead author. While the research may be directed by a professor, this implies the majority of the actual work was performed by a graduate student. The point that the research is directed by a professor is important; a new graduate student would be unlikely to produce quality research without some type of direction.

During my final two years as an undergraduate, I worked on a research project with a professor. It led to three publications and ultimately, in my opinion, to my acceptance into graduate school. Due to a state grant, I was paid about $2000 over the course of those two years and received funding to attend a conference. Total cost to the American taxpayer was less than $5000.

Was the money well spent? The copyright of the papers belong to the publishers. A copy of the final publication can be obtained from Springer for just under $30, so the papers themselves are more or less inaccessible to the public. If I had to be honest, the research itself probably is not worth the money it took to produce; I was an undergraduate student and just beginning to learn how research is done. The six years I spent in graduate school were a similar story. While the research was of a higher caliber, the amount of money was also greatly increased.

I understand the criticisms of people who look at each piece of individual research and claim it was not worth the money spent. I also understand the counterargument that the entire body of research should be considered, not just a each piece individually. My main point is that this all ignores another important product of research: the researcher.

Much time and training is required to develop the type of knowledge and skills that produces quality research. In general, the private sector does not provide this training; they rely on universities to provide this training. The universities rely heavily on government research funding to support the research programs that create these researchers. Cutting research funding affects not only the actual research, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the training of future researchers.

If we rely solely on the private sector to perform research, where will the researchers they require come from?

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2 Responses to Research Produces Researchers

  1. jdwatkins23 says:

    I totally agree, I have thought for some time that the government funding of graduate degrees in science and engineering is about training smart, skilled people. Who can then either choose to take their skills to industry or teach others. Unfortunately, most faculty members I have encountered would disagree and see their research as the most important thing and waste their time with labs full of post-docs or starting small companies.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m guessing we are both biased by the labs we come from. I was lucky enough to land in a group where the faculty cared greatly about teaching and training; not sure if I can even recall seeing a post-doc within our group during my six years in graduate school. Lately, I have been meeting more people with a similar take to yours. It must be quite frustrating to be stuck in a lab like that. I wonder if it is an issue of incentives. While an academic career provides a lot of freedom, it also does not provide the same level of financial compensation as industry. Also, the universities largely care about the amount of money a professor brings in; teaching and service appear to be secondary. Our ideals of what makes a good academic are not necessarily the same qualities that academics are rewarded for.

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