Friday, August 24, 2007

Reforming University Research

By Richard Vedder

One of the cost drivers that has made higher education so expensive is university research. Teaching loads have fallen to allow faculty to do institutionally supported research, my guess by roughly 25 percent over the past 40-50 years. The number of scholarly journals has soared over the decades. Government grant programs have grown, especially in the sciences. University-private partnerships in research have greatly expanded.

Much of the public subsidy of research has been justified on externality grounds --research has positive spillover effects. While undeniably much research is valuable, I have often wondered if most of the financial benefits of doing research cannot be captured by the researchers and their institutions through the patent mechanism. Interestingly, the proportion of research done privately in the U.S. has grown over time relative to university research, suggesting there are considerable private gains realizable from innovation --as any drug manufacturer will tell you.

CCAP has been relatively quiet on these research issues. We have strongly criticized congressional research earmarks, we have advocated moving to a standardized federal overhead reimbursement rate at a comparatively modest level for research grants, and we have even wondered why more research projects have not been put out for bid, rather than awarded in the current fashion where there is only one investigator bidding to do a very specific project. Finally, we have speculated that diminishing returns have long set in on much academic research, especially in the social sciences and humanities --we have too many journals, are having too many obscure papers written of little social value, etc.

Another concern I have relates to research dissemination. The typical referee process of scholarly journals is expensive, cumbersome, and, most importantly, delays dissemination of results. But my main concern is that I think sometimes provocative, creative and innovative works gets stifled. If one referee doesn't like the piece, often that is enough to kill it. Or sometimes the author has to suppress certain provocative ideas in order to get a referee to grudgingly accept publication --this has happened to me more than once. Hence I am big on the open access movement, and with placing all journals on-line, reducing the power of quicker referees to reject. And, with that, of course, a reduction in journal prices to zero. I support, generally, the move to have research at federally funded institutions made available online within months of its release, a goal pursued by some Democratic legislators.

I have been somewhat controversial over the years, and have had many good papers killed or intellectually cleansed to make them politically more acceptable, I think to the detriment of intellectual diversity and progress. Along with Jonathan Leirer and others, I have argued that public support for higher education is not associated with more economic growth --do you think I could get that idea published in a conventional very high quality journal? I am presently talking to a prestigious university press about publishing the results, and time will tell whether my pessimism here is warranted. Too often, good but politically incorrect ideas are suppressed -- I see this in the viciously hostile attitudes toward respected scientists who are skeptical of the conventional view on global warming. In short, in general, there are many changes worth considering as we evaluate the efficacy of university research.

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