So there was a recent post by DrdrA of Blue Lab Coats fame ranting about a recent article in the Huffington Post concerning the pay of faculty members at Texas A&M, and how the article made use of dodgy data in coming to a false conclusions about the financial contribution faculty members make to a University. I do not disagree with Drdr A at all on these points. However, I do disagree on one very important point that she makes and that I’ve seen others make throughout the blogosphere. This point is epitomized by the following excerpt from her post:
“This drivel gets seen by a national audience, without respect to the (sometimes massive) mistakes made during the process… and viewed by an audience that doesn’t have an understanding of how the modern research university system in this country works.”
The issue here is that the public does not understand what professors really do and how research works at the University level. Now, if you are a professor or postdoc reading this, think way back to the time when you were a first year graduate student. Remember how much there was to learn about the way the academic world, and academic research worked? Did you have much, if any, idea of this from your time as an undergraduate? I know I certainly didn’t grasp this at all. Even as a young post-doc I’m still working to understand how the system works despite being at it for 5+ years.
Now, you need to realize that the large majority of people in the United States, and the rest of the world, even those with a college degree, do NOT HAVE A CLUE when it comes to how things really work in a research university. Why? Is it because they are willfully ignorant? Because they don’t want to know? Not necessarily….it’s the same reason why you didn’t know when you were a first year graduate student. Because nobody tells them. And who is in the position to educate these college graduates? YOU, the professors, are!
So, in large part, it is largely the fault of the professors that college educated citizens do not understand how things work in a research university. You have many (but certainly not all!) of these people in your classrooms at one point or another, but there is no discussion in these classrooms about how science actually works. If there is no discussion from the people that actually do the science and work in this environment, then it seems completely unreasonable to expect educated citizens to actually appreciate how the entire enterprise actually works.
The solution? Integrate a bit of how science actually works into the classroom. I know I never had any exposure in a classroom setting as to how science actually works. The funding, the graduate students, the postdocs, the peer review process…all of this is completely and utterly opaque to even the college educated public. If we want people to appreciate all that academics do, then it is our charge to educate them when given the opportunity. Otherwise it appears quite unreasonable to expect Joe Q. Public to appreciate how academic research works, even at a very superficial level.
This lack of an understanding about how academic science work is, in many ways, y(our) fault!