How universities incentivise academics to short-change the public

Euro Money Coins Loose Change Specie CurrencyThis is going to be a short post (for a change). First, you should read this by David Colquhoun. I’ll wait until you get back. (You should sign the petition as well while you’re over there).

In his usual down-to-earth and incisive style, Colquhoun has said just about everything that needs to be said about the shocking mismanagement of King’s College London.

So why am I writing this post? Well, it’s because KCL is far from alone in using annual grant income as a metric for staff assessment – the practice is rife across the UK higher education sector. For example, the guidance for performance review at Nottingham contains this as one of the assessment standards: “Sustained research income equal to/in excess of Russell Group average for the discipline group”. Nottingham is not going out on a limb here – our Russell Group ‘competitors’ have similar aspirations for their staff.

What’s wrong with that you might ask? Surely it’s your job as an academic to secure research income?

No. My job as an academic is to do high-quality research. Not to ‘secure research income’. It’s all too easy to forget this, particularly as a new lecturer when you’re trying to get a research group established and gain a foothold on the career ladder. (And as a less-new lecturer attempting to tick the boxes for promotion. And as a grizzled old academic aiming to establish ‘critical mass’ on the national or international research ‘stage’.)

What’s particularly galling, however, is that the annual grant income metric is not normalised to any measure of productivity or quality. So it says nothing about value for money. Time and time again we’re told by the Coalition that in these times of economic austerity, the public sector will have to “do more with less”. That we must maximise efficiency. And yet academics are driven by university management to maximise the amount of funding they can secure from the public pot.

Cost effectiveness doesn’t enter the equation. Literally.

Consider this. A lecturer recently appointed to a UK physics department, Dr. Frugal, secures a modest grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for, say, £200k. She works hard for three years with a sole PhD student and publishes two outstanding papers that revolutionise her field.

Her colleague down the corridor, Prof. Cash, secures a grant for £4M and publishes two solid, but rather less outstanding, papers.

Who is the more cost-effective? Which research project represents better value for money for the taxpayer?

…and which academic will be under greater pressure from management to secure more research income from the public purse?

Image: Coins, the acquistion of which is not university departments’ main aim. Credit: https://www.maxpixel.net/Golden-Gold-Riches-Treasure-Rich-Coins-Bounty-1637722

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

17 thoughts on “How universities incentivise academics to short-change the public”

  1. One thing that pushes the irony meter well into the red is that the UK has an example of how to organise and do science: the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Staff were deliberately prevented from accumulating resource. If you got sufficient grants to go over 5 people, the MRC took away one of your core funded staff. The LMB produced revolution after revolution for decades and the succession of Nobel prizes are the basis for a very large number of jobs in the UK, as well as elsewhere.

    So with a great “how to do it” manual, we head off into precisely the opposite direction. This is in part to justify hierarchical position and certainly nothing to do with research. A ratio I use when on grant panels is to divide the current grant income by number of recent papers. This varies by at least a factor of 10 and until the dust has settled a decade or two down the line, we cannot know which papers were the most influential. So a good measure in my view. The fact I promote efficiency may be why I tend to be invited once, but not re-invited to grant panels.

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  2. Indeed in the past, management at my university have claimed that we lose money on research council grants, because they don’t cover the full costs. This means that work which reduces the university surplus is considered `better’ than work done within the existing budget.

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  3. When bemoaning my lowly status as Senior Lecturer to a collaborator a few years ago, he said, not entirely facetiously, ‘It’s because you haven’t wasted nearly enough money’. I should add, I don’t think I’ve wasted much money since, though.

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  4. Good blog Phil. So was David Colquhoun. This struck a chord: “…little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists”. And just to make your day: in the real world, your Dr. Frugal’s papers were peer-reviewed by your Prof Cash. And rejected. They never got published.

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  5. It is time we start proposing solutions – a platform – to demand change. With John Allen, we made concrete proposals for our School, taking into account the existing budgets etc. More work of this kind is required, precisely because of the widespread problem. I have summarised a few recent stories from the UK on my own blog – http://fanismissirlis.wordpress.com/

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  6. You “forgot” the positive feedback loop. If you burn a lot of money, that is interpreted as being good and will make it easier to get more funding. A science bubble.

    The best solution to me seems to be to reduce the fraction of project funding to the levels we had a few decades ago. I do not think anyone can argue that research was less good then (even if the number of paper was lower). In Switzerland there is a maximum number of projects you can get from the national science foundation; that is a small, but good start.

    If a professor has limited funding to hire staff and do research he will be very critical in how to spend it to make the biggest contribution to science. In case of projects, the same professor would apply to whatever programs there are with a finite chance of obtaining some funding, whether he sees the project as important or not.

    An the funniest thing is that this system is called competitive. If that is competition, then managing to get resources from Moscow in a socialist planning system is also competition. The people making the decisions have no skin in the game, except for their general interest in science. It is an amazing sign of dedication of the scientists in charge that this weird system works somewhat.

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  7. One important thing you haven’t spelled out here, which academics will know but non-academic readers may not, is that in any research grant, a substantial proportion, typically about 1/3, is what are known as “indirect costs”, going to the university rather than directly paying for the research (what used to be known as “overheads”). So as far as the university is concerned, Prof Cash’s research is much more highly regarded than Dr Frugal’s.

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    1. In Germany (and I think in many other countries) it is the other way around. Projects do not get money for overhead (or a partial compensation). But naturally there are overhead costs. In this way a large part of the normal science funding is eaten up by project science.

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  8. There are two models, the first is a small set of research universities with few faculty funded through their schools. That, if you will was the old model. The second is a set of competitive research grants funding a larger number of faculty who derive only part of their support through the school mostly for the teaching that they do. That is the current model.

    The current model carries the seeds of its own destruction, because to survive faculty have to build groups, the graduates of which become their competition. When external support falls and competition grows you get the mess everyone is in.

    In the US, especially in medical schools there are large numbers of faculty who do perhaps a few months teaching a year. The deal with the devil is that they are expected to support their own salaries in large part. Faculty in other schools generally are paid nine month salary and are free to sit on the beach or find grants for the summer or teach summer school.

    So yes, the administrators at QM and KC are scum. Academic administration too many places is well described as a huge swamp of irresponsible behaviour in which there are lots of mosquitos that fly up in the air, suck blood and spread malaria, to borrow a phrase, but almost all of the people being let go, only have positions because of the funding model which is in the process of failing

    Finally, anyone who thinks that 30% overhead is ripping the taxpayer off needs to try and rent the office and lab space that they use on a commercial basis, and, oh yes, library access. Or you could harness those postdocs up to stationary bikes and generate the electricity you use.

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    1. My point about ripping off the taxpayer is not related to overheads (well, not directly). It’s a very simple argument indeed re. cost effectiveness vs “securing cash”.

      There is a drive in the system simply to get more research income, even if, in the worst case, that extra funding actually reduces quality (e.g. research group gets too large/difficult to manage — students not given appropriate level of supervision — poorer papers produced).

      It’s in this sense that I meant that the taxpayer was getting short-changed.

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  9. Phil, this does need to be said. An anecdote from friends of mine in a science department at another Russell Group university.

    Their Research Office constructed a graph with a y-axis of publications and an x-axis of grant income. At one extreme there were some individuals at the bottom right and the other extreme were researchers who came out at the top left. No prizes for guessing which group were berated. The argument being, “well, with impacts like that you should be bringing in more income.” As the academics said, the learning lesson from this was; “if you bring in the cash we don’t care if you p**s it up the wall, just bring it in.” Not a good stance for a University to take.

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    1. “With impacts like that, you should be bringing in more income”.

      I’d love to say that I was shocked by this, Jim, but I guess that quite a few academics will have heard similar words.

      Never mind the quality, feel the width (of the wodge of cash). I’m of the opinion that for a university to behave like this is nothing short of immoral.

      Fanis above asks what we should do to change this? The problem, as ever, is that far too many academics will use the tired old argument of “We’ve got to play the game. It’s important to be pragmatic. We can’t be seen to be rocking the boat. We can do more by working within the system. We’ll damage the Dept./School/Institute if we don’t try to work within these parameters.” et cetera and ad nauseum.

      …and as long as the majority adopt this supine position we’ll get nowhere.

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      1. Yesterday I found myself in a heated argument about this issue when a friend was describing physics as a business. I found myself very frustrated with the analogy that physicists have to “find ways to make their research profitable to get funding”. The conversation became very irritating as the general sentiment was that anything other than utterly pragmatic acceptance of the truth that “money drives everything” was naive idealism. I had no response when told by a fellow physicist that “scientists are stupid if they cannot spin their research to sound profitable when submitting grant proposals”.

        I honestly find it disturbing how many people hold the opinion that “things are the way they are “, nothing can be done about it, and anyone who thinks otherwise is “an idiot”.

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        1. I honestly find it disturbing how many people hold the opinion that “things are the way they are “, nothing can be done about it …

          George Bernard Shaw had something to say about this…

          “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

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  10. Although it is hard for academics to accept, running a university is an expensive proposition. If you think your job is to only “do your scholarly work” and not find ways of contributing to the support of the place, don’t be surprised by the lack of appreciation you garner.

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  11. If you think your job is to only “do your scholarly work” and not find ways of contributing to the support of the place, don’t be surprised by the lack of appreciation you garner.

    Oh dear, there’s not something of a chip on your shoulder, is there?

    In terms of contributing to the “support of the place”, I do the following (amongst quite a few other things like, errm, exam-setting and exam-marking, which I won’t trouble you with):

    — give undergraduate and postgrad lectures (see http://www.youtube.com/Moriarty2112 if you’d like some examples);

    — supervise PhD students and postdocs (see http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/physics/research/nano for an insight into what they do);

    — write grant applications and do research secure grant income; (I can forward you details of my total grant income as a lecturer/reader/professor if you like. The EPSRC component of this you can find fairly easily on the web in any case. Please do let me know if I make the grade.)

    — coordinate and participate in multi-partner EU projects (including this: http://www.acritas.eu );

    — do outreach and public engagement. See, for example, this: http://www.youtube.com/sixtysymbols . And this .

    — committee work (both internally and national/international);

    etc..etc..

    See also this Times Higher article. I’m intrigued — what’s an average day like for you?

    So, like my colleagues across UK academia, I “support the place” in very many ways. As a new lecturer, for example, I regularly worked 70-80 hour weeks to keep on top of teaching and to try to get my research off the ground. (This is not uncommon amongst new academics). This is a rather far call from the fictional 37.5 hr working week which the TRAC methodology, for one, supposes. Perhaps you’ve fallen for the TRAC myth and actually believe we all clock-in and clock-out on a 37.5 hr/week basis?

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