Mailbag: The Soviet science system

1 minute read

Re: “Jobs in American Science”:

Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?
Duh! And not only scientists. About an order of magnitude too many bachelors of everything, too.
instead of being a permanent PI of a small lab, the modal researcher would be a faculty trainer bringing her own funding into a larger lab with multiple workgroups. Senior scientists would succeed by administering larger workgroups; junior scientists could vote with their feet.
Heh, do you know what you are describing? You are describing a hierarchical structure of governmentally-funded research institute. That's the system I know because I grew up in it - it was a core of the Soviet and German systems. (Bolshevik education reform basically took German system and modified it slightly). No tenures in this system, though - you have to constantly deliver (or do something else to be liked by bureaucrats that give you money). It is, in fact, a very efficient system - contrary to the myth about science in USSR being done under repression in gulags , the success of Soviet physics in the 1950s and 1960s owed primarily to this structure *that was well funded* and attracted enthusiastic best of the best. Has its own problems, of course. That's the way I think it should be done: most of the science should be done in research institutes and universities should concentrate on undergrad education, hiring faculty based on teaching abilities to do primarily teaching. (You probably know that in big NIH-drawing fields, even here in UW, teaching qualification is not even among *practical* considerations when hiring/promoting faculty). IMHO, this would results in *enormous savings* on all fronts. But the current system is too entrenched - it will sooner crash and die under its own weight rather than reform.

Yes, I had in mind the organization of the Max Planck institutes. I hadn’t thought of it as a “Soviet” model, which strikes me as rather funny.

I dislike the idea of giving honchos more power and control, but yet I must say that most of the good research gets funded because some honcho with money uses grant or institutional money “off-label”, as it were. Bleeecch, a choice between dictators and bureaucrats!