Why Research?

Why Research?

A couple days ago, GEARS decided to tackle the following set of questions:

Why, with the high cost of university tuition, can’t schools have teach-only professors? With a ratio of 20:1 in the classroom and a rate of 100/hour (roughly), why do professors still need to get research dollars? Is it economically feasible to have teaching-only professors? Why doesn’t this happen more? Why do universities have to rely on research funding to stay afloat? We were talking about the demands on researchers and how that prevents better teaching (because so much time is involved chasing funding) and were questioning why not just give up the research side of things?

There are a lot of ways to tackle these questions, but I’d like to make a few different points.  (I’d also like to mention that GEARS discussed the teaching school alternatives, so I don’t plan on hitting that point again.)

  1. The first point is that there are already places that have this.  Most of the time, they are adjunct professors or lecturers.  They are brought in to teach as few as one class on occasion and as many as six classes per semester.  I can guarantee you that they aren’t paid $100/hr, especially if you take into consideration how much time they have to work on course-related activities outside of class.  My university has something called a “professor in practice”, which is basically a full-time teaching professor but with a year-to-year contract.  (Not all that different from an adjunct, but I believe they get benefits.)
  2. Professors often do not receive money during the summer months, i.e. when they are not teaching.  Sometimes research money can fill that gap when they are not being paid by the university.
  3. The research funding is often necessary not for the professors, but for the students and post-docs that they employ.  In other words, the university pays for the professor, but the professor needs to find ways to pay students and staff.

These points address some of the logistics of the questions.  However, I would like to talk about the “why”.

A study very recently came out that made an argument for why research and teaching should mix: teachers make better researchers.  Usually, academics are in one of two camps: teaching is a waste of time because it prevents one from doing research or that researchers make better teachers.  I don’t know if there is any empirical evidence of either of those claims.  My experience with good researchers in the classroom is that they’re as much of a mixed bag as those who are marginal to poor researchers.  I personally don’t think that research ability is any indicator of the quality of teacher.

That said, I can very much see how teaching would benefit someone who is a researcher.  It forces a researcher to go back and review fundamentals on a regular basis, communicate with students (almost all of whom have a significantly less sophisticated view of a field than their professors), and, probably most important, talk about how the basic approaches are still used in advanced research.  In other words, it makes you think about what you’re doing on a more regular basis.  Practice makes perfect.

Now, one may argue that research has no place in the university setting.    That’s a value judgement, but a significant number of technological advances have been made at universities.  Most industries (with pharmaceuticals probably being the major exception) do not want to put significant amounts of money into research and pushing the cutting edge, technologically.  (For instance, virtually all of the Bell Labs-type organizations have been shut down.)  If you have no interest in the US being a global science and technology leader, then, by all means, eliminate research.

I would also like to point out that even industry looks to academia to train scientists and engineers (as well as many other professions).  Most industries are not willing to train their employees in job-related duties, let alone provide the general education that most graduate students, and many advanced undergrads, receive.  Eliminating research would remove the training grounds for most of our scientific workforce, and this training is not likely to be picked up by private industry any time soon, even with the significant decreases in funding that have been coming down the line in the past decade or so.  In fact, most research organizations have shut down at the same time that the government had been cutting budgets to most scientific funding organizations, such as NSF and NIH.


As I fill the gap between acedemia and industry I have a different view. Acedemic research is typically very fundamental and small scale. That deos not mean it isnt expensive but it certainly is limited in scale.

Industrial research is more applied and larger in scale. Consider that Vattenfall are leading CCS for example but universitites will develop the material sceince behind the technology. Chevron is the largest investor in geothermal applications (and yes that is a research area) but the underlying technology related to the pumps and materials often are developed by acedemia.

In other wors the two work together. Acedemia is clever but industry has more street smarts.

As regard training, all industries train their people. In fact I would say that again acedemia provides the necessary basis for a scientist/engineer to become sucessful. It is how the person applies this in their later job (whether acedemia/industry) wll define how sucessful. One thing that is definately true; in my industry it is very rare that a ”student” engineer at any level (BEng to post doc) will ever be train on a true pilot plant.

Can I have my thunder back plz! (JK)

WRT the Bells Labs comment: That was a particular issue I was going to discuss next week. Industry, with their quarterly profit reports, cannot afford to throw money at a problem that may not produce anything in the long run or it will take too long to see the results. For instance, if a company is going to spend $5M on research to only net $10M in a few years, it’s not worth their time in most cases, even if it has the potential to net $100M 20 years from now. In industry, it’s all about the next 6 months.

Universities are places for high risk, high reward research. Do you think big pharma is going to research drugs for rare diseases that only affect 1000 people a year or are they going to pursue the next anti-depressant that also teaches you spanish at the same time? Universities are basically the only places where you could do that research because you don’t have to worry about profit margin, making not only integral for grad students/postdocs but also to society at large.

I agree that research is important, that American companies are failing to do basic research as they once did, and that these days the American university largely fills the role that Bell Labs and others did. I also support additional research funding for universities.

However, my claim is that too many schools have top-notch research while failing to educate undergraduate students. This is a shame not only because those undergraduates are paying good money to the university for sub par teaching, but also because it discourages average students from pursuing engineering simply because they think they cannot learn it.

Graduate students and above average undergraduates have already learned how to learn regardless of teaching quality. But mediocre undergraduates benefit immensely from effective teaching. At a time where America is competing to produce more engineers, effective undergraduate instruction is critical.

Many students do not plan to do research. They would benefit from excellent instruction in engineering basics that they could apply every day to problems in their work. It is unfortunate that these students would attend a university that places more importance on research and graduate student employment than teaching. To me, this should be a basic mission of a university.

One other thing I still don’t understand is where the money goes. When I was in graduate school, I calculated that I was paying roughly $100 per hour of class time. There were at least 10 students in the class, a typical size. Even if you assume that after tuition assistance each student actually pays $50 per hour, that’s $500 per hour of class.

I know that teachers don’t receive anywhere near that amount in compensation; where does it go? Is it that research is not financially necessary per se, but has other benefits? Everything I read says the opposite: administrators rely heavily on research dollars to fund engineering departments. Why?

Of the money that students pay in tuition, very little of it pays the professors, you’re right. What you’re forgetting about is that the university is not just paying for professors. They are paying for building maintenance, janitors, secretaries, administrators, librarians (and libraries…do you know how much journal subscriptions cost?!), student health services, and lab equipment. Undergrad students expect these things as part of the college experience at most schools. And when taken together, they’re all incredibly expensive.

One other point on this: professors don’t just spend 3 hours/wk teaching. Teaching a class the first time is probably a 20-30/wk endeavor. You have to prepare lectures, figure out class materials, write homeworks and tests, then grade them. After that, you can probably maintain on 10-15 hrs/wk. Just because a professor spends 3 hours in class doesn’t mean that’s all they put into it.

I will say, from personal experience, that I agree that *some* of the high level research institutions are not going to provide as good an education as some other universities and colleges. That said, students have a choice to go elsewhere, as GEARS mentioned – liberal arts colleges are designed to be educationally focused, and that’s where the students who have no interest in research ought to be going. I personally have talked to upcoming students and recommended they go to this college or that, including my own son, based on how much they care about the educational environment. In my son’s case, he’s going to need to be at a place where education is very important, so I’ve been steering him toward smaller schools and liberal arts schools.

On to the research: You can’t do research that makes a dent unless you have some pretty heavy duty equipment. You need laboratories, supercomputers, field work, etc. The infrastructure to provide an education AND to provide an environment where serious research can be done is extremely expensive. Most universities don’t have some of the specialized equipment necessary for high level research, so they acquire it through grants. Aside from all the big stuff, things like chemicals and various materials need to be restocked frequently. We use a 3D printer where I work, and we go through an insane amount of printing ink. Our cleanrooms use tons of chemicals. It’s a lot of money to keep it all running once it’s there. But it’s also beneficial to the students to have a place where they can gain job experience doing something that may be related to a future career, so even research is not strictly research: it can also be educational.

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