and the U.S. Academic Community:
context of the participation of US Scientists at ICPEP-2, for some time I have
been exchanging my views on the subject with Dr. K. J. Ahmad (Organizing
Secretary of ICPEP-2). In that context, I write the following discussion that
might be of interest to the readers, particularly those in India.
his difficulty in contacting some US scientists or receiving responses from
them to his correspondence, he observed that in India, generally scientists
remain associated with their organizations for decades, often right up to their
retirement. In contrast, in the US they appear not to work at a given
institution for more than a few years and tend to move to different places. It
does not appear to be uncommon to even shift to different regions of the
country. Thus, at times it becomes quite difficult to keep track of even your
friends and acquaintances, not to speak of others, particularly when one is
trying to contact them from abroad.
observations deserve a response. In the US, as with most other areas of
scientific investigation, research on air pollution effects on crops, forests
and native vegetation is carried out by scientists in the academic community,
government agencies, quasi-government laboratories or by those in the industry
/ private sector.
and Colleges in the US can be broadly classified as public or private
institutions. Within the public domain, by the 1862 act of the Congress, known
as the Morrill Act or Land Grant Act, every state in the country is required to
have one institution that conducts research, education and public outreach in
service to agriculture. These are known as Land Grant Universities; because the
state governments provided the needed land, tax exemption for institutional
finances and revenue in support.
positions in the Colleges of Agriculture at these Land Grant Universities are
mainly created by the needs of the agricultural community within the state,
although the associated research may have national and international
implications as well. Such positions, once approved, are financially sustained
by the mandate of the state legislative governing body. Nevertheless, each such
position has various combinations and extent of responsibilities in research,
education and public outreach (extension). Until about the mid 1970s, at most
Land Grant Universities, these responsibilities were dealt with on a relatively
informal basis and the faculty member was essentially given a free hand. For
example, in my case, I was informed that I could do the research of my choice
(any aspect) as long as it is in the field of air pollution effects on
agriculture (including even forestry and native vegetation) and that I was
expected to teach one course per year.
free hand was highly desirable (a point of friendly jealousy among many of my
colleagues), the only limitation was that I, like all the others, was required
to generate external support through public and private grants etc., to conduct
research. This grant support was to augment the annually recurring, but modest
University or its Agricultural Experiment Station operating funds, to sustain
my program. To facilitate the grant procurement and the consequent
administrative management of these funds, all universities have a Research
Administration that may charge these days up to 50% on every research $ in
administrative costs (known as overhead costs). Therefore, the grant support
that one seeks externally must not only have sufficient funds to conduct the
proposed research, but also include additional overhead and where appropriate,
costs for employee fringe benefits. For example, these are health insurance for
post-doctoral fellows, technicians and others whose salaries are included in
the grant, graduate student tuition fee etc. Thus, the actual research $ that
one can use may only be about 40-45% of the total grant awarded.
changed substantially since I started some 30 years ago. Because of a
combination of scientific backgrounds in plant biology and chemistry, I could
integrate the dynamics of atmospheric processes to the corresponding changes in
plant processes. I was able to proceed from the rank of Assistant to Associate
to a Full Professorship with little resistance from our administration in
regard to my scientific credentials. Clearly, this progress was based on
confidential, technical reviews of my scientific work from peer scientists at
the national and international levels.
Assistant, Associate and Full Professor classification is also used in all
non-Land Grant Universities in our country. Once a person achieves the
Associate Professorship, in a predominant number of cases that person is also
awarded a "tenure" or permanency. I hasten to point out that the three levels
of faculty appointments that I mentioned are somewhat comparable to the
positions of "Lecturer", "Reader" and "Professor" in the system used in the
at our University (almost at all others) every person starting as an Assistant
Professor must be reviewed for satisfactory performance at the end of the 5th
year. The department faculty members who are at the higher rank of an Associate
and Full Professor conduct this review. Such a review is based rigidly on the
initial position description (specific discipline or problem area and per cent
research versus teaching responsibility etc.) and external peer review in the
candidate's field of specialization. The evaluation of the research component
is based on the total external grants obtained, the number of peer reviewed,
international journal articles published within the 5 year period and the
scientific standing in the peer community. Likewise, the teaching component is
evaluated by the extent of graduate student (MS and Ph.D.) advising, by the
anonymous, but obligatory teaching evaluations submitted by the students
attending the classes taught and peer review by a senior faculty member. There
are similar procedures for the evaluation of the outreach component.
performance of an Assistant Professor seeking promotion and tenure is
considered to be unsatisfactory by the appropriate department faculty and the
administration, the appointment of that person is terminated at the University.
Subsequently, that person will have one year to seek a new position elsewhere
(under the circumstances, it is almost impossible to get a similar position at
another comparable University), therefore such individuals end up in teaching
positions at small colleges or in the private sector. In both these cases there
is no pressure to publish or perish. Currently the attrition rate of Assistant
Professors in our college is about 15%,
these considerations unfortunately place a lot of pressure on our young faculty
to comply with the expectations of the senior faculty and the administration.
Thus, frequently they are unable to aggressively pursue new research avenues
that may be time consuming. Instead, their main thrust is to obtain tenure by
complying rigidly with the original job description and satisfying the fiscal
accountability of the taxpayer's money or spending that is imposed by our
lawmakers. Clearly this is most unfortunate from a scholarly perspective.
procedure of academic evaluation is used for Associate Professors who may seek
promotion at any time. In this case, only the Full Professors conduct the
evaluation. The candidate may or may not be promoted at a given time, but that
decision does not affect the tenure or the permanency of that person. The
candidate can try again in due course. Therefore, that creates less stress
compared to the need to obtain "tenure" and perhaps the candidate in this case
has not only become wiser, but may start to find ways to initiate high quality,
long-term research in basic science. In either case, it builds more experience
and international visibility. This is generally analogous to the "exponential
phase" in a growth curve.
comparison, people like me are perhaps in the latter part of the "exponential
phase" or even in the "deceleration or stationary phase" in the growth curve of
scientific productivity or stature. The critical aspect is to recognize when
the "autolytic phase" is starting. That is the time to retire or step-down.
This is very important in maintaining one's professional reputation.
Interestingly, by federal law, in our country, at public institutions there is
no mandatory age for retirement, because any set, such requirement is
considered to represent age discrimination. However, as in our University,
consistent lack of productivity by a Full Professor (for upto 5 years) can lead
to the abolition of the position. In some cases, the employer may offer
financial and related benefits for the employee to retire early or
alternatively, without going into the details, one may voluntarily retire at or
after the age of 59.5 without income tax penalties.
through this long discussion of faculty positions in our academic system, let
me address the initial statement of Dr. Ahmad that some scientists in the US
appear to be modern day "nomads" or in frequent transition between
1950-1980, some Land Grant Universities and similar institutions offered
non-tenure track positions as "Research Scientists" to some well-known people
in the field of "Air Pollution Effects on Plants". These were individuals that
conducted full time, independent research (no teaching requirement) and had no
difficulty generating grants to provide their own salary. However, since the
1990s such funding has become increasingly difficult to obtain. Some scientists
in these positions moved to other institutions to teaching positions for
example. Others changed to administrative positions at their own institutions
(re-assignment), some became private technical consultants and still others
negotiated for financial and other benefits and accepted an early retirement.
For the most
part, many scientists in the US have remained in one place or institution for
years or until their retirement. They are the tenured or permanent faculty
members at academic institutions (Land Grant and non-Land Grant) and those at
government agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US
Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service. There are also scientists
at our National Laboratories such as at Oak Ridge, Tennessee who belong to that
category. All these individuals are similar to the examples in India mentioned
by Dr. Ahmad.
Unfortunately for the scientific community, it is the others that can also make
a mark, but are caught in transition. Similarly, many tenured University
faculty members have no external grant support for international travel to
conferences (unless costs for such travel was designated
in their grant proposals, with the needed scientific justification). That is
because, the administration does not view the funding of a particular grant and
the consequent research to be specifically relevant or germane to the contents
of a conference independently organized by some others. Thus, the relationship
between the two aspects and potential benefits to the research project must be
justified. This is interpreted as part of the "Responsible Management of
Research", to address the demand for fiscal accountability by our lawmakers.
here lies a combination of answers to Dr. Ahmad's disappointment (I too share
that feeling) that some US scientists are unable to attend ICPEP-2. I thank him
for persuading me to write this analysis.
V. Krupa is Professor in Department of Plant Pathology at University of