Thursday, March 17, 2016

Changing Science

I'm curious to see what the results are from Vox's asking people how they would change science.  In my opinion there are lots of little things that could be better, but much of the problems faced by science today has more to do with funding and money than any other single item.  In particular, I think that the common use of science departments as piggy banks for universities cuts off a lot of potential science, and hurts science education at those universities.

My solution is simple: better funding of public universities (general funds, not department specific).  I submitted a [poorly organized] response to them to that end.  The funding of universities (and science) is very complex, but the dramatic relative cuts in funding from states have led to the business style administrations that are more common than they used to be.  Universities need a lot of money to operate.  Some comes from student tuition and fees, some from private donations/endowments, some from grants and some (particularly for public/state schools) comes from government funding.

It used to be that quite a bit came from government funding (yes, I could probably find out how much but this is not a research paper), but the combination of decades of Republican tax cuts (which require subsequent spending cuts) compounded by the current lesser depression has shrunk that part down.  Costs keep going up, however, and schools need to make up the difference.  So tuition has risen...sharply, but that isn't enough. One of the places a university can find extra money is the grants that professors are awarded.

There are some different ways that universities get money from professor grants, but for every ten dollars of granted funds a university may get $3-5 of that.  (Note: grants aren't all specified the same way.  Sometimes a $1M grant means that the professor gets $500-700k, sometimes it means the professor gets $1M and the grant will pay the university whatever over that is necessary to make sure the professor gets the award total).  Science grants are particularly nice ways to get money since they tend to be larger than grants in other departments/colleges.  Some of this is because of the often expensive equipment necessary for science.  Some of it is personnel, and some of it is, honestly, a value judgement.  Most people consider science research more "wothwhile" compared to, say, humanities or fine arts research.  (There is a bit of economics at play too, since there can be some financial rewards via technological advancement, but that often does not flow back to the grantor--particularly when the grantor is the government--it may, however, flow back to the university.)

The fact that science departments can be seen as profit centers for the university has some [potential] consequences.  Most obvious is the publish or perish mentality, though that would probably be better reworded as "get funded or get out".  While publications were once the hallmark of quality the number and quantity of grants fills that roll today.  That isn't inherently bad, or it wouldn't be in a world where quality research could always find funding, but that isn't the world we live in.

Yet even accepting that there is another problem: established professors, have an easier time maintaining funding and getting new funding than those starting out.  There are also "superstar" professors who have become funding juggernauts.  This is easy to understand since bigger name professors tend to get higher quality students/post docs who do good work (sometimes developing that work) which further advances the name/opportunities of the professor.  There are ebbs and flows and, again, this isn't by itself terrible since it can still lead to really good science, but the financial power these professors have at the universities has some downsides.

One is they often can negotiate contracts where they teach very little (sometimes not at all).  Ok, yea, they are teaching their grad students/post docs but someone still needs to teach the undergrad classes/labs. That means hiring more profs, but they can also demand large salaries against a university that needs their money in part because they aren't funded well enough, and that can mean less cash for other professors, so now instead of hiring a tenure-track position, they are hiring adjuncts: basically glorified post docs that get minimal salary and poor to no benefits.  PhD's teaching science as adjuncts at universities can be compensated more poorly than our under-compensated high school teachers.

Another issue with these super-profs is that their talents (mostly the one for getting lots of grant money to roll in) are in high demand.  The number of senior positions available at universities is larger than ever, while the number of entry level tenure-track positions is dwindling.  So while well funded big name professors can go pretty much wherever they want, aspiring researchers have to fight a lot harder just to get in the door.  (Note: large private research institutions still do hire a fair number of entry levels, but getting that job a Harvard, which has always been difficult, is even harder today since there are fewer StateU positions to go around.)

I should add in: super-profs are great.  They nurture talent, their labs can be sources for scientific breakthroughs, they can be good for public outreach (more of a mixed bag here but still).  Were it not for universities being desperate to get more money these profs would still exist, but the universities they work at would not be so beholden to them, and more people would have the chance to find their way to that roll.  Also, maybe the students would be getting better education.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Journalistic Neutrality

Further my last post/comment is this Greenwald article.  I think that there is another side of the coin which is journalistic objectivity, which is also probably not historically representative (especially if you go back a century or two) but which is important and is fairly rare to find today.

Objectivity and Neutrality sound like similar things--and I think the big media outlets operate as though they are the same--but they are not and they have dramatically different effects on how journalism [could] work.  Neutrality is everything Greenwald describes: it is failing to say an obviously bad thing is bad or that an obviously good thing is good. Objectivity requires mediation that understands facts and counters lies.

I think Vox generally tries to be objective, and sometimes but not always neutral.  CNN certainly pushes neutrality often at the expense of objectivity.  MSNBC is fairly show dependent: Maddow and Hayes are fairly objective (though with a definite point of view), Matthews is neutral and not really objective (and most likely thinks of himself as such), O'Donnell and Scarborough are really neither but again they take on airs as though they are.  Fox is neither neutral nor objective.  

Most of the bigger left leaning journalistic entities are more objective than not (fairly easy since most facts align well with more liberal positions).

In the case of journalist as mediator (whether between people as in a debate or just when relaying a story managing to convey relevant facts and appropriate conclusions) objectivity is obviously quite important.  For other types of journalism, namely opinion pieces, it seems like it would be less so but that isn't really the case.  Even opinion pieces should be supported by facts, and claims of relevance that are both true and appropriate.  It's why I have been bitching a bit about some of Krugman's recent pieces, and that's why pretty much nothing on Fred Haitt's crayon scribble page is worth the effort of reading.

Monday, March 14, 2016

One Little Problem With That

Reading through this Vox piece on the Internet's effect on politics is interesting, but I'm struck by a particular note where Timothy discusses the downsides. He states:
...Scurrilous rumors spread more easily. It's harder to hold candidates responsible for their misstatements.
On the right, Republican candidates have been proposing tax plans that are several times as large as the George W. Bush tax cuts. Maybe you think big tax cuts are a good idea, but candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have also been pledging to boost military spending and balance the budget. There's no way they can deliver on all these promises simultaneously.
This is actually kind of a bad argument to make since it is the media's utter failure in halting the spread of "scurrilous rumors", particularly with respect to the Clintons and to never hold any Republican plan to light, and e.g. allowing things like climate change to be "debated" between an actual scientist and a political consultant, that has led people away from those outlets and toward more obviously biased but in some cases more accurate reporting venues (particularly on the left).

Friday, March 11, 2016

This is Why I Won't Vote Clinton in the Primary

Bernie Sanders was right about US involvement in Latin America in the past 50 years.  Hillary attacked him for it.  The US government repeatedly did fucking awful things like supporting vicious dictators and guerrilla coups against democratically elected governments.  Instead of conceding the point she decided to go after him by making it seem like he was in favor of the horrible things done by Castro in Cuba.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Poor vs. Wealthier, College Degree Edition

I have a feeling this is a network effect.  Basically: wealthier people who get college degrees have a better network to plug into via family/family friends than do poorer people.  This makes it easier to get jobs straight out of college, and that makes a big difference down the road (promotions, experience...).  A college degree is nice, but it doesn't by itself get you a job.  Having better connections helps a lot when it comes to finding work.  The degree is just a check-mark on the resumé (more often required now).

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Not Sure That's a Good Thing

Mark Toma links a piece talking about negative interest rates (tl;dr). I don't really care about the headline question but in the conclusion (quoted) they state:
The bottom line: international experience suggests that negative interest rates...will become a permanent part of the monetary policy toolkit. If that’s right, we need not worry quite so much whether a 2% inflation target is too low. [my bold]
That last part bothers me a lot.  From an economics standpoint the main reason that a 2% inflation target is too low may be that it does not allow enough room for monetary accommodation in the face of severe shocks.  The ability to use negative rates does, in fact, ameliorate that somewhat.  From a human welfare perspective, however, that makes things worse because it will allow very low inflation to no longer be seen as much as a problem.  Higher inflation (not 10%+ but more like 4.5%) has benefits beyond central bank monetary concerns.

The two big things are: it shrinks the value of debts, and (related) it encourages growth to outrun it.  If we can look forward to 4% inflation then that means any debt we take on today is smaller.  This means that student loans are not as daunting, and that a large mortgage will become more managable (it also encourages buying over renting, which, when not overdone, is a huge part of our potential economy).  It also means that businesses have a strong financial incentive to grow and build today: debt is better taken today than tomorrow, and even for debt free businesses, their giant piles of cash losing value at 4%/year doesn't look so good and should therefore be invested.

Of course modestly higher inflation does hurt one group of people: bankers/finance types.  Because of that, it's likely off the table anyway, but this reasoning will make whatever chance a higher inflation target had vanish.  That's not a good thing for our economy.