The folks at the Sunlight Foundation have been diving into National Science Foundation (NSF) data on its 144 advisory committees and the funding awarded in the programs advised by those committees. They show their work on their blog, and it’s very suggestive of a correlation between advisory committee membership and awarded funds.
Sidebar – the Sunlight folks are careful to note that they are dealing with correlation, and cannot definitively prove causation. But their statistical analysis is there for you to pore over and pick at. Please do.
A big factoid:
“Even when controlling for other factors, we find that for each additional employee a university has serving on an NSF advisory committee that university can expect to see an additional $125,000 to $138,000 in NSF funding.”
This adds up when you consider the numbers of employees each of the top 23 universities (in terms of NSF funding) have on advisory committees. The minimum average number of employees was 27, which correlates to a minimum increase of $3,375,000. The maximum average number of employees was 639 (for an entire university system), so the money indeed adds up.
Now, this concentration of funding and advisory committee members in a small number of elite universities is not new. Sociologists of science call this the Matthew effect – that those who have already received resources and recognition find it easier to get more. Academic earmarks also concentrate amongst the elite universities.
This raises – or at least it should raise – questions about how two missions of universities can conflict – research and education. While this concentration of research resources helps ensure that the top talent has what it needs to do high-quality work. But a small number of universities cannot effectively generate the next generation of researchers. There aren’t enough spots.
How can you effectively train new researchers at institutions that don’t have the same resources as the top research institutions? I don’t know, but I expect it’s a bit harder. Unless quality research experiences don’t require the top dollars that those 23 universities pull down.
The NSF does spread around some of its resources through a program called EPSCOR – the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. It’s sort of an extension service for university research. Even so, I think this concentration of resources challenge could be intractable without trying to do things differently.
Are we up to the challenge?