What counts as a waste of tax payers’ money in research?

There was a time (2-3 years back) I and my friend/colleague M used to discuss about how doing full-time research in a public university is a waste of tax payers’ money. We were our respective cynical selves at that time, of course. But our general opinion (mine is still the same – I don’t know about my friend’s) was that research in public university should also include teaching/mentoring/administrative duties, and not pure 100% research.

I did not see myself as a future academic at that time, but here I am.

Yesterday, I heard this bizarre comment about “some research” being a waste of tax payers’ money and I have been wondering ever since – how do we decide? and who decides? and what exactly is a waste?

A few months ago (April-May 2017), a famous robotics professor got an award for teaching and gave a talk on teaching in large classrooms. I attended the talk – it was great, and I learned a lot of stuff. He made a calculation in the talk which fascinated me. When you are teaching a technical course for the first time, according to his estimates of the number of hours of preparation you put in for that, if you divide your salary into a per hour basis, you end up getting about the same salary as a Mac Donalds service counter employee. He went on to show how that gets better as time progresses and you repeat courses (Mac Donalds employee is a bad job is not what I mean. I don’t know about that job. I am saying – for all the aura around PhD and professor-hood – it can also be one of the poorly paying job for a PhD).

With that context, one can argue that profs are under-paid (at the junior level at least). One can perhaps support this statement by looking for corporate trainers and their salaries. Also, generally, there are two kinds of academic research that happen:

a) funded (funded by the university or some external agencies)
b) un-funded (where the professor, or some enthusiastic students try to work on small projects by themselves, in their free time)

Funded research by default means –
a) someone taught our idea is worth funding and may have the potential to benefit humanity
b) the students get paid for working on that
c) their tuition gets paid in some cases
Unfunded research ofcourse will not give any of these.

So, in that context, how does one individual decide one research benefits humanity and one research is a waste of tax payers’ money? What are the parameters? Is that judgement reproducible? If it is a waste of money, why did it get funded in the first place? The question is even absurd in the case of unfunded research ofcourse, because none of the involved parties get paid anyway – they are doing it in their spare time.

I mean – one can argue
a) Organizing conferences in fancy hotels is a waste of tax payers’ money.
b) Going to 5,6 national and international conferences a year is a waste of tax payer’s money.
c) Staying in fancy hotels instead of normal ones during these official trips is a waste of money.

But, passing value judgements on a topic of research? How do we decide? What is the rationale? That too, instead of looking for whether the topic itself was explored thoroughly and properly in the presented work. I have never heard such a thing in my life as a conference goer (incidentally, first one was IJCAI 2007). It is a part of “naa-ism” I guess – saying: “Anything I do is great. Everybody else ofcourse does pure trash.”

NOTE: This is not a well thought out critique of the question “Who decides what research project is a waste of tax payers’ money?”. It is more like a dump of my current thoughts. Based on time, I may perhaps write a more well-argued post.

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Published in: on September 23, 2017 at 3:31 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. మీ ఇంగ్లీష్ వ్యాసానికి తెనుగు కామెంట్ కి మన్నించండి.

    మనం చేసేది తప్పించి మిగిలినవారు చేసేదంతా చెత్త అనుకునే అలవాటు మన వర్సిటీలలో పెరిగిపోయింది.

    వర్సిటీలలో ఉన్న చాలా కుళ్ళు విషయాలు, రాజకీయ అడ్డాలుగా తయారైన హాస్టళ్ళూ, వీటన్నిటిని ప్రోత్సహిస్తున్న ప్రొఫెసర్లతోనూ, వ్యాభిచార గృహాలే నిర్వహిస్తున్న లేడీ ప్రొఫెసర్లతో మన వర్సిటీలు కలకలలాడుతున్నాయి కదా 🙂 వాటన్నిటిని కావాలని వదిలేశారనను.

    ఆ తరవాత అక్కడో ముక్కా ఇక్కడో ముక్కా తెచ్చి అతుకుల బొంతలతో డాక్టరేట్లు పుచ్చుకున్నవారు వారికి వారు పనికి రాక దేశానికీ బరువైపోతున్నారు కదా! అటువంటప్పుడు ఖర్చు వృధా అనుకోడం తప్పుకాదేమో!

    • Sir, I am not talking about Indian universities. I work in an American university and my comment is about them. I don’t know who these people you are mentioning are – I definitely did not hear of such stories here, and I do think PhDs have decent quality here and in Germany where I studied.

  2. Sorry! not aware that u r from America,

  3. Madam, the professor’s reference to Mcdonald’s was about the minimum wage offered to employees. Coming to the main topic, it is never easy to fund a research project on a merit. Especially when the purse is controlled by people in power and not associated with the academia. At least in science and engineering fields, there is a direct beneficiary who is sponsoring the work to solve a problem and that in turn helps teachers, student and university as you attributed. But for all other fields of study, it becomes increasingly difficult to build a business case and obtain funding. In any case, the questions you raised are relevant to all places/fields of research irrespective of the geographical location.

    • Anyagami garu – this post is really not about minimum wage or how to get funded. It is more about how to decide what aspect of a either an already funded or a generally unfunded, small scale research project is a waste of tax payers’ money.


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