[Humanist] 24.892 effects of assumptions about grant-funding

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Apr 19 07:22:06 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 892.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 18 Apr 2011 12:23:42 -0700
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.889 effects of assumptions about grant-funding
        In-Reply-To: <20110418051648.271D111F467 at woodward.joyent.us>

WM offers "As a starting point for discussion let us
assume that ALL awards are well deserved and fairly given."  It seems
to me a peculiar assumption, unless it is meant as a bloody clout
thrown down into the arena for the wild beasts to savage.  About a
half-century ago, a leading scientist, emeritus, Columbia University,
published a monograph on "Big Science," and this matter was pretty
well gone through.  One observation in particular entertained me.  He
wrote that the usual academic vetting for worth consisted on comparing
the brute number of citations of any one researcher to be found in the
literature on a particular field of study.  Well and good ...but for
his objection that the secretaries usually lifted a whole body of
notes and bibliography with that person's name and pasted it into the
next article, and so forth, until worth had a numerical measure of
times the name was used to support a particular study or whatever.
Pure worth, untouched, so to say, by human hands, as the vending
machines used to say: put in your coins and get purest uncontaminated
[by critical manhandling] worth and thought.
As far as funding goes, that can be uncertain to measure.  Hiring a
new micro- or molecular biologist, say, at UCLA, means funding that
person, even before arrival and work commences, with a prebuilt lab
that averages between 3 and 5 million $$$.  The academic worth is
already thereby established, in funds, and the hiring and lab is
already used to secure the next 2-3 years of millions.  That is all
hopefulness, as all scientific research may be.  There is a
logorithmic incrementation of worth from the start. To be sure, that
young person has had funding awards before being hired here.  The
sciences are riding very high; value and output...unknown mostly, or
I spent a summer in the 60s on a panel at UCLA called Delta that
reviewed 20 years of vast funding by the NSF, a new invention post-war
in the US.  The chairman, at the end of 10-weeks, reviewing all the
summations of reports, himself a ranking physicist, opined that the
many billions had been labored, belabored, and laboring like the
mountain until was brought forth 1 great mouse, a true achievement:
the polio vaccine.  Did we get our money's worth, in short?  How to
answer that?
In short, valuations are dicey per se, and discoveries are not
uniformly distributed regularly, let us say, in any 2-5 year grant
period, but seemingly random, often unrelated to general trends or
pursuit, and most unpredictable.  As for measures of academic worth, I
think Hamlet made his point succinctly; viz., Use every man after his
desert and who shall scape whipping?  In other words, are there
measures of worth other than cases one by one, and according to which
values, and, ad hominem, which evaluators, honest or not, hardworking
or not.  Some famous Nobelists seem to have relied on the invisible
grad students or unsung lab workers, not to put too fine a point on
Jascha K

Jascha Kessler
Professor of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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