Reward Systems and NSF University Research Centers: The Impact of Tenure on University Scientists' Valuation of Applied and Commercially Relevant Research

By Boardman, P. Craig; Ponomariov, Branco L. | Journal of Higher Education, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Reward Systems and NSF University Research Centers: The Impact of Tenure on University Scientists' Valuation of Applied and Commercially Relevant Research


Boardman, P. Craig, Ponomariov, Branco L., Journal of Higher Education


Over the past three decades, U.S. science policy (1) has shifted from decentralized support of small, investigator-initiated research projects to more centralized, block grant-based, multidisciplinary research centers. No matter one's take on the "revolutionary" nature of this shift, (2) a major consequence is that university scientists, now more than ever, are subject to multiple and often conflicting demands. The purpose of this article is to examine the impact of having tenure on university scientists' consideration of these demands, particularly the demand for applied and commercially relevant research.

We are interested in scientists who work in a particular type of university research center, one previously referred to as the "multidiscipline multipurpose university research center," or MMURC (Bozeman & Boardman, 2003, 2004b). These scientists are interesting because MMURCs, at least those funded by the federal government (e.g., the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology Centers programs), require that scientists be tenured or occupy a tenure-track position in an academic department.

More important here, MMURCs expect of university scientists research and other behaviors that generally do not align with the traditional university reward system. As a faculty member in the traditional academic department, the contemporary university scientist has a key responsibility to create knowledge, and for the most part success is measured by peer evaluation and publication despite calls for emphasis in tenure and promotion decisions on the many other activities and tasks (e.g., teaching, applied research, and community outreach) that university scientists perform (Boyer, 1990; Braxton & Del Favero, 2002; Diamond, 1993, 1999). As MMURC faculty, the university scientist generally works as part of a multidisciplinary and interinstitutional effort to apply existing knowledge, and success in many cases is measured in terms of technology transfer from university to industry. (3) In fact, this issue of misalignment between reward systems and faculty behavior is a problem not just for university faculty in the hard sciences or more specifically in MMURCs, but also for faculty working in the social sciences and in professional fields including medicine, business, and management. (4)

Geisler (1989) has suggested that such misalignment may discourage university scientists who are not tenured but who are tenure-track (hereafter referred to as "junior-level scientists") from performing applied science with industrial partners:

  Faculties in research universities are required to conduct basic
  research and to publish the results. Such research outputs are then
  used in promotion and compensation decisions. Therefore, when working
  on industrial type problems, faculty may feel constrained by
  limitations of time and by the publishability of the research they
  undertake. This is particularly the case with junior faculty,
  reluctant to join an industry-sponsored project that demands time but
  may not hold much promise of academic outputs and rewards. (p. 50)

Further, university administrators often incorrectly assume that extradepartmental research units such as MMURCs have no problems in getting untenured university scientists to engage in applied research and related technology transfer activities (Friedman & Friedman, 1985).

More recently, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) expressed this sentiment in its Higher Education Report, reporting that the traditional university reward system pays short shrift to applied and industry-related research, thereby hindering the "institutionalization of the scholarship of application" (Braxton, Luckey, & Helland, 2002, pp. 74-75). Similarly, a recent presentation by Lynn Preston, (5) Director of the Engineering Research Centers (ERC) Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF), to the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) Engineering Research Council highlighted that tenure and promotion committees are more often than not too narrowly defined. …

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