Tuesday, October 11, 2016

One Percent Problems in Academia

When I was a callow youth in this business, I was thoroughly resentful of those who would pile up a series of post-docs after grad school.  It seemed like the best way to get a post-doc (a fellowship where one could focus on getting one's dissertation published and working on the next big project) was to have one already.  It seemed quite unfair that a few select scholars would end up getting the lion's share of this scarce resource based on the original assessment of potential.  The dynamic was mostly that getting one of these things would both improve one's cv and tell others that the person has already been vetted and found worthy, making it easier for the next foundation to say this person must be worthy.

As it turns out, this happens at the end of careers as well.  McGill's own Charles Taylor just got another lifetime achievement award, which makes his total of such stuff reach $4.5 million or so.  Again, concentration of awards. This is end of career lavishing of awards on the few is less important since it will not hurt the career chances of others.  And it is not based on some elusive sense of potential but a career-long track record.  But I still tend to react by saying FFS.  Mostly, perhaps, because it reminds me of what I observed nearly twenty-five years ago.  Partly because it seems wrong that so much would come to so few.  I am not going to get into race and gender as I don't know the track records of these end-of-career awards, but I do wonder.  It does make me feel the same way when one actor seems to get an annual Emmy, that others are deserving of recognition.

The solace I used to take when pondering such stuff is that more than a few of the serial post-doc folks flamed out--that they had more time than most to publish and yet didn't.  Of course, am I one to talk?  I am currently benefiting from a fellowship--that I am in Japan on the dime of the Social Science Research Council and Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership and that received another prestigious fellowship.  But that previous one was 15 years ago, so it is not like these things are accumulating like snow in Ottawa in January.  

I do feel a bit less comfy about the shift in SSHRC (Canada's social science granting agency) from many smaller grants to a smaller number of bigger grants--I didn't think the old system was broken.  On the other hand, SSHRC is quite clear how much past performance matters in the evaluation of grants (not a majority of the weighting on the scores), and I had to take two whacks at it the last time. 

Anyhow, when I saw that Taylor got yet another award, I reacted differently from my friends.  They were happy for the guy, who I never met at McGill.  Me, I just wondered what philosophers would say about how this stuff distributed.

1 comment:

Frances Woolley said...

CIFAR is the most egregious granting agency in this respect. It throws huge amounts of Canadian taxpayer and private donor money at people who are tenured professors at Princeton and I'm thinking "why?" Do you think these people wouldn't be publishing if they weren't getting an extra $30K a year or so in few-strings-attached cash from various Canadian schmucks? It's hard to believe that there is any marginal value in terms of additional productivity, training, or research output from loading additional laurels on those who are already so highly lauded.