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Vol. 8 No. 1 - January 2002

Agriculture and the U.S. Academic Community:

A Commentary

By: Sagar V Krupa

In the 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.

Because of 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.

Dr. Ahmad's 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.

Universities 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.

Faculty 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.

While this 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.

Things have 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.

The same 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 Commonwealth Countries.

These days, 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.

If the 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%,

Overall, 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.

A similar 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.

In 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.

Having gone 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 institutions.

During 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 a priori 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.

In summary, 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.

Prof. Sagar V. Krupa is Professor in Department of Plant Pathology at University of Minnesota, USA


This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.


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