Thursday, March 19, 2015

The coming funding crunch

It's no secret we're in the middle of another boom in CS enrollment. Departments everywhere are struggling to keep up with the increased number of students wanting to get into our programs.

But there's a chain reaction with potentially nasty consequences coming our way. And while some of this will be obvious to academic types, it might not be obvious to the community at large, or even graduate students considering going into academia. 

Consider: 
  • As departments everywhere try to adjust to the new load of students, they have two options: hire a lot more teaching faculty to teach classes, or start negotiating with their universities for more tenure-track positions. The latter is clearly preferable (if you don't believe me, look at the plight of adjuncts in the humanities). But....
  • Universities can live with hiring more faculty, because the increased tuition from more students helps justify it, and more faculty means more research grants, and more hafta for the administration. But...
  • More faculty means more applications for research awards, to the various organizations that dole out money (NSF, NIH, DARPA, ONR, DoE, ...). But...
Have you seen science budgets lately ? They're basically flat. 

We've seen this Ponzi scheme before in biology, and the consequence of that is that the average age of a first time PI has crossed 40, coupled with increased time spent doing postdocs. It's now the norm rather than the exception in CS to see faculty candidates with at least one postdoc. 

And there's no easy way to de-escalate. All the possible dams we can build are bad, or difficult to execute on: 
  • Don't hire more faculty. Then we're stuck with ever increasing class sizes and lower quality of student education.
  • Hire more contingent faculty. This might be a short term solution, but it's a horrible way to treat new Ph.Ds, and frankly given the options out there in industry, you wouldn't get as many takers (at least if people think rationally about this)
  • De-link academic success from funding, or encourage the teaching mission more. This is a complete non-starter at most schools that rely on overhead. And for R1 universities, research dollars are not just a bottomline factor, but are a prestige element. 
And don't even get me started on how this is going to affect our already stretched-near-breaking-point conference review process. 


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