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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Law Profs and Funded Research

Thanks to the Prawfsblawg Impresarios for inviting me into another guest-blogger gig.

Why don't more law professors spend their time writing grant proposals for their research? This is obviously a major part of the job for faculty members elsewhere in the academy, especially in the sciences and social sciences. And funded research could have a profound impact on the funding and atmosphere in a law school. Let's think about demand-side explanations and supply-side explanations.

On the demand side, people who fund research for other fields already have an interest in legal questions, at least in some legal fields. In criminal justice, the field I know best, the USDOJ is always funding research on topics related to prevention, investigation, adjudication, and punishment of crime. The same is true for the National Academy of Sciences and other routine funding sources of university-based research.

It's the supply side, however, where we find the explanations for the absence of research grants from life for most law professors. (More after the break.)

Given the growth of Empirical Legal Studies (as chronicled by our friends at the ELS Blog), there are plenty of people with the skills and research interests needed to supply funded research. But right now, there are no internal law school incentives to submit grant proposals. What's in it for the suppliers of the research?

Currently, only a small number of law faculty pursue expensive research protocols (as in other disciplines, where large sums are needed to buy databases, to fund travel, and to pay salaries for large cadres of research assistants). As long as the number remains small, deans can pay the freight or (more troubling) convince the faculty member to pursue less expensive research. Why bother with an annoying grant proposal when a meeting with the dean will get you the funding you need?

But if the number of expensive researchers (and potential grant writers) gets larger, deans may be forced to insist that the faculty seek out grants when possible. A larger pool of grant writers in a school could also create an environment where funding success becomes one measure of status as a scholar. Faculty members will move in that direction if the status markers point that way.

Imagine the up-side from the dean's point of view. Funded research could ultimately allow a school to expand its faculty without any stress on tuition or other funding sources. Funded research also tends to have immediate real-world applications, the sort of thing that deans love to trumpet to the friends (and potential donors) of the law school.

Is there any reason to expect that grant proposals will not eventually become a big deal in legal research, as they currently are in the sciences and social sciences?

Posted by Ron Wright on December 5, 2006 at 10:29 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I agree with Michael that it is worth checking out Ron Wright's provocative post at PrawfsBlawg on grant funding. To backup some of Ron's ideas, I am once again linking to this terrific compilation of external funding sources (via the [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 6, 2006 1:53:06 AM


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For market/structure reasons, I'd be shocked if the "the number of expensive researchers" grows dramatically in law schools unless the transformation to a true graduate school model emerges within law school. Writing grant proposals and doing expensive research takes a lot of time (and a lot more time than traditional legal research). Other disciplines have this time because this work merges with teaching in collaboration with graduate students. There is little likelihood that "expensive research" in the law school setting wil seriously dovetail with teaching responsibilities.

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 5, 2006 1:45:16 PM

I have a number of concerns about what Ron has proposed in his post. Specifically, he suggests that "A larger pool of grant writers in a school could also create an environment where funding success becomes one measure of status as a scholar. Faculty members will move in that direction if the status markers point that way." Is this truly what faculty members want or is it simply an easy method for administrations to assess the relative merits of scholarly productivity through an apparently facially-neutral methodology? Will this result in funded research becoming more valued than non-funded research simply because it was funded?

I fear that looking to funding success allows for an assessment of the relative "accomplishments" of faculty members without having to truly assess their scholarship itself, such as by reading it or having it assessed by someone in the field. While none of us are expert in all areas of the law, surely avoiding this inquiry altogether is not the best method of assessment.

I have always worked under the (perhaps naive) impression that the most important element of academic research endeavours is the end-product, that is the article, book, report, etc., rather than the means by which it was facilitated. How relevant is it whether some agency provided me with course relief stipends or the ability to hire research students? If anything, it would seem to be a much greater accomplishment to achieve scholarly success without the benefit of these. Further, the presence of funding itself does not necessarily reflect quality (as perhaps distinguished from reputation) or, indeed, the ability to complete the proposal for which the funding was provided.

Another problem with using funding as a criteria for scholarly productivity or "status" is that it presumes that funding is equally available for all types of projects and research areas. In Canada, this is not the case, something that is exacerbated by the fact that universities in this country are all public institutions with regulated (and hence relatively low) tuition.

This debate reminds me of a situation that occurred while I served on university senate a few years back. The President announced a new research initiative and indicated that it would be staffed by the university's top researchers, who would be identified solely on the basis of their success in obtaining grant funding. This, to me, speaks of the "status" raised in Ron's post. I objected to this idea then and I still object to it. In my humble opinion, academic research should be more focused on the process of investigation and inquiry rather than pandering to the whims and desires of granting agencies that may possess hidden or not-so hidden agendas.

Having obtained research funding from outside agencies myself on many occasions, I have done so only where the funding objectives are consistent with my own research pursuits. While I do not wish to force my viewpoint on others, all that I ask is that others do not force this idea of status on me.

Thanks for posting this, Ron. I hope that my contribution helps to stir the pot a little more.


Posted by: Leonard Rotman | Dec 5, 2006 1:51:13 PM

There are many great sources of funding for research. But I do worry that some sources of funding may dictate the parameters of inquiry in a biased way.

Posted by: Frank | Dec 5, 2006 4:36:48 PM

Are lawprawfs on a full-year rather than 9-month salary? If so, it must be be nice. If not, why not (there's some internal law school incentivese for you)?

Posted by: billb | Dec 5, 2006 5:08:34 PM

When you realize that in medicine, grant funded research means that only 5% of your salary is guaranteed by the university and grants last about 2-3 years… well, be careful what you wish for!

Posted by: Steve | Dec 6, 2006 5:43:05 PM

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