A sociologist and associate dean at the University of Texas-Austin has recently put together a report on faculty productivity at his school that was undertaken to counter criticism that some faculty at the school didn’t do enough research to justify the money paid by taxpayers to support the school. The report cautions against using the same measures of productivity across disciplines:
While Musick said there was value in using the available numbers on research support, he stressed the importance of recognizing that this is valid only for some disciplines. (And one of his recommendations going forward is that the university develop better measures for research productivity of faculty members who work in disciplines without significant sources of outside funding.)
His own field of sociology is a perfect illustration of the limits of using outside funding as a measure of faculty research productivity, Musick said. Sociologists have some government support for which they can apply, but not nearly as much as do those in the physical or biological sciences, he noted. Even within fields, one’s success at obtaining funds may be based on area of expertise, not productivity. Musick said that as a medical sociologist, he has been able to win National Institutes of Health grants that some of his colleagues in sociology — people with good research agendas — could not seek.
He also said it was important to reject the idea that universities should be based only upon those fields that can attract the most outside support — even if you have a goal of producing more scientists. Musick cited as examples STEM-oriented universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology — both of which invest significant funds in humanities and social science programs. “They recognize that universities are ecosystems,” he said. “They recognize that to produce the best scientists, they need the humanities and social sciences and the fine arts.”
It would also be helpful to keep in mind that there is even disagreement within sociology about faculty productivity. (I assume these discussions might also take place within other disciplines.) I’ve seen some heated discussion between faculty of different subfields of sociology where productivity is measured in very different ways. A book might be considered a massive achievement in one subfield while multiple journal articles are the norm in another. Plus, you could get into the quality of such publications which can also be difficult to assess. Impact factor seems to be the favored way to do this today but that has some issues and applies only to journal articles. Additionally, we could ask what the benchmark for overall productivity is: should UT-Austin match other R1 public schools and/or places like Harvard and Princeton?
Does the availability of outside funding help explain why medical sociology is a growing subfield?