Social science doctoral students, the bell tolls for thee

One of the more surprising things I found out in my tour of doctoral programs is that the general pattern seems to be to grant funding for one year less than most students take to complete (e.g. 5 years of funding for sociology programs that normally take 6 or more years to complete, or 4 years of funding for business school doctorates that more likely take 5 years). The expectation at many programs seems to be that students should be prepared at that point to compete for peer-reviewed external funding based on the strength of their dissertation proposal, in addition to other sources that might come from the school.

That’s all well and good when the funding is there, but it’s looking like that may no longer be the case. One of the biggest sources of doctoral completion grants is the National Science Foundation, which is now officially out of the business of funding at least one social science. From Inside Higher Ed (h/t Gawker):

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jeff Flake tried and failed this week to get his colleagues in the House of Representatives to slash the budget of the National Science Foundation, proposing an amendment to a 2013 spending bill that would have cut more than $1 billion from the agency’s funds.

But unable to convince his fellow House members that the government needs less research on physics, engineering and other fields, he chose a lower-hanging target: social science studies with easy-to-ridicule titles.

And this time, he was persuasive.

By a vote of 218-208, the House Wednesday night backed an amendment that would bar the NSF from spending any of its 2013 funds on its political science program, which allocated about $11 million in peer-reviewed grants this year. Explaining the amendment on the House floor Wednesday evening, Flake said that given his colleagues’ reluctance to slash the agency’s overall budget — the House defeated his earlier amendment by a vote of 291 to 121 — Congress should ensure, “at the least, that the NSF does not waste taxpayer dollars on a meritless program.”

As for the “meritless” research funded by the program:

Some of the topics that set Flake off seem predictable, given current politics here; “$700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis,” for instance.

But in a particularly troubling sign for political scientists and advocates for academic research (including several scholars posting about the bill at the Monkey Cage), several of the projects that Flake singled out for ridicule (“These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them”) touch on issues such as whether policy makers do what citizens want, and why young people don’t seem interested in going into politics.

Oddly enough, I do think Flake has hit on one valid point when he noted that 75% of the grants go to universities with endowments of greater than $1 billion. That’s a tricky point since those also tend to be the most competitive schools, which means they have the double benefit of being able to choose the most competitive grad students and faculty, while also enjoying their position in the rigid (you could almost say fanatical) status hierarchy of U.S. academia. But it’s also a perfect machine for the maintenance of that status by protecting the universities’ endowments from the need to fund their students’ and faculties’ research.

And that has been the greatest surprise of all (at least to me) about academia – the idea of “publish or perish” is still operative, but true power as an academic comes from the ability to land external funding. Academic CVs – including those of advanced doctoral students – regularly include a section on the source and amounts of external grants. With this new bill in our new age of austerity, it’s looking like that hill for doctoral students is likely to get significantly steeper.

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