Jun 212022

In today’s installment of The ills of academic linguistics, I’m going to talk about grant creep: the ever-increasing reliance on external grants to fund basic functions of the modern research university (including the ability to pay living wages to graduate students, not to mention postdocs). PLEASE NOTE: For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll be setting aside the kinds of research programs that universities never had the budgetary wherewithal to fund on their own, e.g. those that require prohibitively expensive machinery or massive staffs. Yes, if your research requires an active nuclear reactor, there probably never was a time where the university would have funded it internally. That kind of work is not my focus here.

In one sense, grant creep is a direct result of the continuous decrease in state funding of universities, from their peak level – which, in many institutions, was reached sometime in the decade or two following World War II. Consequently, this increased reliance on external grants is usually presented to the employees of the university as a simple matter of survival: we can’t afford to fund activity X ourselves, so we can either cut it completely, or we can attempt to continue doing it by raising money from an external source. (E.g. the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes of Health, etc.) Before I say more about this realpolitik approach to grant creep, I’d like to explain why such grant creep is bad even if the overall amount of money available via grants plus state funding remains stable, or even rises.

First, let’s acknowledge that this ain’t ancient Greece or ancient Rome, or even Renaissance Europe: the amount of knowledge and expertise that humans have accumulated is such that understanding one field of inquiry fully and thoroughly will come at the expense of another. Life is literally too short to master all the domains of knowledge that humanity has accumulated. Funding agencies know this, which is why they try to staff review panels with (what they consider to be) relevant experts on the research proposals put in front of them for review. But expertise is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it’s gradient. And because linguistics is such a small field, it’s vanishingly rare to have even one member on any given review panel who really knows, ahead of time, the subject matter relevant to the proposal they’re currently reviewing.

Thus, part of the labor that falls to the writers of any research proposal worth its salt is pedagogical: teaching the readers/reviewers the details they need to know to even be in a position to evaluate the proposal, in the first place.

The whole thing therefore becomes an exercise in SciComm. And this is where things get really pernicious. Because one of the dirty secrets of SciComm is that communicating method is way easier than communicating theory. (Compare the difficulty of crafting a meaningfully detailed explanation of what a particle accelerator does, vs. a meaningfully detailed explanation of why it’s scientifically worthwhile to do that.) And communicating a bad, overly simplistic theory is very often easier than communicating a good, more deeply explanatory one. (Compare the difficulty of explaining why the sun appears to circle the earth in a geocentric model of the universe, vs. explaining the same thing in a heliocentric model.) The predictable result of these dynamics is an emphasis on methodological sophistication over theoretical quality; and, where there is any theory to speak of, a race to the bottom as far as theoretical depth is concerned.

This is how you end up, for example, with a project funded to the tune of several million euro, whose central premise can be debunked in a short blog post. And this is supposedly one of the good outcomes(!), since at least the agency in question funded a project whose ambitions were partially or wholly theoretical.


The participation in grant creep by theoretical scientists in general and theoretical linguists in particular is therefore the epitome of a locally-defensible, globally-disastrous strategy. The more the university is able to maintain the facade of “operating normally” in the face of budget cuts, the more those budget cuts seem reasonable and justified; this, in turn, ensures that these cuts will never be scaled back, and sets the stage for yet more budget cuts in the future. This is not hypothetical, of course; it’s precisely what has played out, repeatedly, over the course of decades, in state after state, public institution after public institution. And the second-order result of this dynamic is an essentially guaranteed decrease in the quality of theoretical science being produced. Frog, meet gradually warming water.

Now, I can already hear the putative counterpoint: “What would you have us do, close down the university?” I suppose my answer would be that it depends. It depends whether one’s goal is the preservation of one’s narrow purview (hello ‘locally-defensible’ my old friend), or the health of academia (hello ‘globally-disastrous’, my other old friend). This may seem trite, but, had universities resisted state budget cuts in a more unified and organized manner on pains of striking – in other words, had the professoriate thought of themselves collectively rather than individually, back in the days when there was still such a thing as faculty governance – there’s a chance that the dismal present state of affairs might have been avoided. Or at least mitigated to a significant degree.

I guess we’ll never know.


ETA: My friend Zach Stone passes along this prescient, highly relevant piece.