University Conundrums

Universities in Canada and the United States and probably in Australia as well are bedeviled by not knowing what they should be doing. In general, they all want to be ‘excellent’ but this is largely an advertising gimmick unless one wishes to be more specific about excellent in what? Excellent in French literature? Probably not. Excellent in the engineering that facilitates the military-industrial complex? Probably yes, but with little thought of the consequences for universities or for Planet Earth (Smart 2016). Excellence in medicine? Certainly, yes. But much of the advertisement about excellence is self aggrandisement, and one can only hope that underneath the adverts there is some good planning and thinking of what a university should be (Lanahan et al. 2016).

There are serious problems in the world today and the question is what should the universities be doing about these long-term, difficult problems. There are two polar views on this question. At one extreme, universities can say it is our mandate to educate students and not our mandate to solve environmental or social problems. At the other extreme, universities can devote their resources to solving problems, and thereby educate students in problem analysis and problem solving. But these universities will not be very popular since for any serious issue like climate change, many voters are at odds over what can and should be done, Governments do not like universities that produce scholarship that challenges their policies. So we must always remember the golden rule – “she that has the gold, makes the rules”.

But there are constraints no matter what policies a university adopts, and there is an extensive literature on these constraints. I want to focus on one overarching constraint for biodiversity research in universities – graduate students have a very short time to complete their degrees. Given a 2-year or 3-year time horizon, the students must focus on a short-term issue with a very narrow focus. This is good for the students and cannot be changed. But it is potentially lethal for ecological studies that are long-term and do not fit into the demands of thesis writing. A basic assumption I make is that the most important ecological issues of our day are long-term problems, at least in the 20-year time frame and more likely in the 50 to 100-year time frame. The solution most prevalent in the ecology literature now is to use short term data to produce a model to extrapolate short term data into the indefinite future by use of a climate model or any other model that will allow extrapolation. The result of this conundrum is that the literature is full of studies making claims about ecological processes that are based on completely inadequate time frames (Morrison 2012). If this is correct, at least we ought to have the humility to point out the potential errors of extrapolation into the future. We make a joke about this situation in our comical advice to graduate students: “If you get an exciting result from your thesis research in year 1, stop and do no more work and write your thesis lest you get a different result if you continue in year 2.”

The best solution for graduate students is to work within a long-term project, so that your 2-3 years of work can build on past progress. But long-term projects are difficult to carry forward in universities now because research money is in short supply (Rivero and Villasante 2016). University faculty can piggy-back on to government studies that are well funded and long-term, but again this is not always possible. Conservation ecology is not often well funded by governments either, so we keep passing the buck. Collaboration here between governments and universities is essential, but is not always strong at the level of individual projects. Some long-term ecological studies are led by federal and regional government research departments directly, but more seem to be led by university faculty. And the limiting resource is typically money. There are a set of long-term problems in ecology that are ignored by governments for ideological reasons. Some politicians work hard to avoid the many ecological problems that are ‘hot potatoes’ and are best left unstudied. Any competent ecologist can list for you 5 or more long-term issues in conservation biology that are not being addressed now for lack of money. I doubt that ideas are the limiting resource in ecology, as compared with funding.

And this leads us back in a circle to the universities quest for ‘excellence’. Much here depends on the wisdom of the university’s leaders and the controls on university funding provided by governments for research. In Canada for example, funding constraints for research excellence exist based on university size (Murray et al. 2016). How then can we link the universities’ quest for excellence to the provision of adequate funding for long-term ecological issues? As one recommendation to the directors of funding programs within the universities, I suggest listing the major problems of your area and of the world at large, and then fund the research within your jurisdiction by how well the proposed research matches the major problems we face today.

Lanahan, L., Graddy-Reed, A. & Feldman, M.P. (2016) The Domino Effects of Federal Research Funding. PLoS ONE, 11, e0157325. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157325

Morrison, M.L. (2012) The habitat sampling and analysis paradigm has limited value in animal conservation: A prequel. Journal of Wildlife Management, 76, 438-450. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.333

Murray, D.L., Morris, D., Lavoie, C., Leavitt, P.R. & MacIsaac, H. (2016) Bias in research grant evaluation has dire consequences for small universities. PLoS ONE, 11, e0155876.doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155876

Rivero, S. & Villasante, S. (2016) What are the research priorities for marine ecosystem services? Marine policy, 66, 104-113. doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2016.01.020

Smart, B. (2016) Military-industrial complexities, university research and neoliberal economy. Journal of Sociology, 52, 455-481. doi: 10.1177/1440783316654258

One thought on “University Conundrums

  1. jeffollerton

    With regard to universities as agents of social change, beyond just educating students, quite a number of British universities are becoming seriously engaged with this concept and dedicating resources (including staff and student time) to it. At the University of Northampton we have signed up to Ashoka Changemaker as a way of focusing this effort:

    http://uk.ashoka.org/changemaker-universities

    Long-term data is collection is definitely an issue, though, completely agree. In a modest way we are using undergraduate field trips to Tenerife to build up long-term data sets on a couple of interesting questions related to spatio-temporal stability in pollination and flowering strategies. It’s limited what can be done under that scenario, however, but better than nothing. I’ve never understood why university field course organisers don’t do this more often given that they often go back to the same sites year after year.

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