Category Archives: Academia

Rethinking UK Research Funding, Part II: The Vengeance

Time for another long blog post summarising yesterday’s Rethinking UK Research Funding conference.  After the first session we had another set of speakers covering a range of topics, including a representative from UCU and our perennial nemesis, UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association).  As you might expect there were some interesting divergent viewpoints.

Dr Ruth Gilligan — Athena SWAN Manager, Equality Challenge Unit

Ruth began her talk by talking us through the basics of the Athena SWAN charter, which is about creating a commitment to gender equality across higher education institutions.  She laid out some core principles for institutions to follow:

  • Recognise the talents of all
  • Advance gender equality
  • Recognise disciplinary differences
  • Tackle the gender pay gap
  • Remove obstacles to sustainable careers
  • Address short-term contract issues
  • Tackle discrimination against trans-gender people
  • Demonstrate commitment at senior levels in the institution
  • Make necessary structural and cultural changes
  • Consider intersectionality

Institutions are expected to collect data on all these elements and critically analyse the results.  They should work to identify reasons why certain groups may be excluded or underrepresented in the institution, develop action plans to address these reasons, and show progress over time.

Of particular interest here is the requirement to address short-term contracts.  I have seen evidence in the past that short-term contracts affect female academics more severely than males, and so when addressing gender equality concerns short-term contracts become a crucial ingredient.  Funding organisations have a crucial role to play here — the focus on predominantly short-term funding initiatives pushes the number of short-term contract staff higher and higher, so moving away from this short-termism at the funding council level could have a strong impact.

Ruth also showed some current figures, which showed the number of institutions and departments which have been awarded Athena SWAN Bronze, Silver, or Gold awards.  Quite a few institutions and departments have Bronze awards, far fewer have Silver, and only seven departments in the whole of the UK have reached Gold level — and no institutions at all.  So there’s still quite a lot of work to be done here.

I couldn’t help but think during this talk that later in the session we would have a representative from UCEA.  This is an organisation that has decided to try to force academics to accept a 1% pay rise yet again, on the back of a threat to refuse to work with us on addressing the significant gender pay gap in the sector unless we accept the offer without protest.

Given that UCEA represents all the employers, then if they refuse to work with us on the pay gap, the employers would all be dismissing a core principle of the charter as Ruth had outlined.  So surely, if that were to happen, the awards granted across the sector to date should be removed, and any funding linked to those awards rescinded?

Iain Cameron — Head of Research Careers and Diversity, Research Councils UK

Iain started off with a chart listing ‘pros and cons’ for short-term funding programmes.  I could summarise by saying the ‘pros’ column consisted of points that benefit employers and the research councils — ‘agility’ in the sense of being able to respond to research demands, flexibility for the employers, etc.  The ‘cons’ raised points that we’re all quite familiar with by now — career uncertainty, lack of career development and training time, research time lost to job searches for short-term researchers, and the general unreliability of redeployment arrangements in universities.

Iain acknowledged that the sector is packed to the gills with short-term workers with uncertain futures (21,000 PhDs granted each year, 45,000 post-docs around at any given time).  He laid out the RCUK vision for post-docs which he feels would improve their lot:

  • An overarching aim to support excellent researchers
  • Career support from beginning to end of a contract
  • Mentoring from senior colleagues
  • Networks to enable sharing of experiences
  • Broadening the definition of ECRs to ensure this assistance is widely available
  • Encouraging development of independence in research
  • Pushing institutions to treat post-docs as ‘proper employees’

Note that none of these points really involves RCUK changing anything about their funding structures or tying their funding to progress on short-term contracts from institutions or similar.  In my view these actions are far from sufficient and do not demonstrate a real commitment to addressing the problem.

He moved on then to a discussion of the post-doc academic fellowships available at some universities, in this case Leeds and Birmingham.  These fellowships are generally for five years and include substantial mentoring and career support as well as protected research time.  He called them ‘tenure-track equivalent’, which is of course not true, as tenure is a real thing with a legal framework behind it which does not exist in the UK at all (thanks, Thatcher).  Personally I’d be more excited about these fellowships if they were commonplace, rather than being offered at only two of the many dozens of HE institutions in the country.

After this Iain discussed the PhD situation for a little while, noting that PhDs are being granted to many more people now than even a few years ago, and that there is concern about where these people can make use of these skills when academic jobs are so incredibly scarce and competitive.  He pointed out some figures from businesses, who seem moderately enthused about hiring PhD grads, who they say provide innovative perspectives and valuable skills.  I don’t doubt that this is true, but unfortunately the great majority of PhD students take on the challenge because they want an academic job, not so they can become a juicier prospect in the business world.

In general my personal reaction — as you’ve probably gathered — is that this presentation seemed to acknowledge the problems presented by short-term funding regimes and their effect on the research career structure, but offered very little in the way of solutions on the RCUK side of things.

Michael MacNeil, National Head of Bargaining and Negotiations, University and College Union

Next up is Michael MacNeil, long-time high-level UCU official and a nice chap who I’ve spoken to a number of times about fixed-term contracts in UK academia, so I was pleased to see him focusing on that topic during this talk.  He set out to discuss the HE sector record in supporting sustainable research careers (spoiler alert: it’s not good), and to lay out the case for moving away from fixed-term contracts in universities and for institutions to take responsibility for their researchers.

He noted that higher education is the third worst sector in the UK for insecure employment, coming in just below the hospitality industry and retail.  Two-thirds of the sector’s entire research base is employed on fixed-term contracts, and out of those 57% are for two years or less, and 29% are for one year or less.  While the Fixed-Term Contract Regulations 2002 do provide some protection for fixed-term workers, in practice they’ve made very little difference, as it remains straightforward for employers to deny permanency to fixed-term employees (I can vouch for this fact personally).

Michael then outlined why this issue matters, and why it creates enormous waste and inefficiency in the sector:

  • The human cost in stress and ill health, which also affects productivity
  • Unfairness, particularly towards women and minorities who are disproportionately affected by these trends
  • Great deal of time wasted as fixed-term researchers need to spend time searching for jobs or begging for a contract extension
  • Time and funds wasted on providing training for a constant influx of new researchers rather than retaining talented people within the institution

He also described a few possible actions that could be taken by funding councils and employers to reduce the wastage here:

  • RCUK could fund longer grants to reduce short-termist thinking
  • Tie the disbursement of funds to institutions providing ‘bridging funds’ to carry researchers between projects
  • Institutions themselves can move to open-ended contracts
  • Redeployment procedures exist at many institutions but are notoriously ineffective — fix them!

He noted as well, as Elizabeth Bohm said in the previous session, that the sector as a whole needs to stop pointing fingers and work together in concert to address the impact of short-termism on research and researchers.  He asked for employers to:

  • Work with UCU to push for stable funding and thus stable employment
  • Abandon their efforts to undermine the employment rights of fixed-term researchers
  • Negotiate policies that mitigate insecurity and promote continuity of employment
  • Stop passing the buck — all parts of the sector need to take responsibility

The second point above relates to when UCU discovered that UCEA reached out to government in secret to push for the removal of bargaining rights for workers reaching the end of a fixed-term contract, effectively making it far easier to make fixed-term researchers redundant.  They did this without discussing the issue with UCU, and at the same time as they were receiving Freedom of Information requests from UCU asking for details on their fixed-term workforce.

Personally speaking, the ‘stop passing the buck’ comment applies to our own community as much as it does to RCUK or UCEA.  While I was heavily involved in my union branch, I saw time and time again how academics in positions of power felt perfectly capable of denying help to young researchers on fixed-term contracts who were doing good work and were asking for some security.  That indicates to me that we are also quite happy to pass the buck.  That needs to stop if we are to have our sector regain its health.

Michael alluded to this at the end of his talk, when he discussed the gap in opinion and action between senior, established academics and younger academics seeking to build a career.  Established academics often don’t really see the fixed-term contract issue as relevant to themselves, even despite the obvious impact of lost research time and productivity due to this nonsensical structure.  As Michael said we need to band together as a community and understand that this issue affects the health of our entire sector and our research productivity, and that by addressing it we all benefit.

Laurence Hopkins — Head of Research, Universities and Colleges Employers Association

Laurence’s talk got off to an auspicious start when the chair of the session introduced him as a ‘colleague’, prompting laughter from the room.  “‘Colleague’ might be a bit of a stretch!’ remarked someone in front of me, causing more chuckles.  People simmered down after a moment, leaving Laurence to get started.  He opened by saying ‘I’m from UCEA… I’d explain more about what we do, but you might start booing me’.

Laurence started by discussing the massive increase in research-only staff compared to research/teaching staff (lecturers and above).  Since 2006 there has been a 14% increase in the number of research-only staff.  Out of these researchers some 19% take home a salary above £42k, compared to research/teaching staff where 80% take home more than £42k.

From here he started talking about the situation in some other countries.  UCEA apparently undertook some work with trade unions and employers associations in HE elsewhere to compare how badly researchers are faring worldwide.  As it happens the situation in Italy looked particularly bad — researchers average 6.2 fixed-term contracts before moving on or getting a permanent job, and 10% of researchers have between 13 and 30 contracts (!).  In a survey 63% of researchers in Italy said they ‘can’t imagine their professional future’.  Salaries are also significantly lower in Italy than in the UK, similar to other continental European nations.

While it was certainly striking to see those figures, I couldn’t help but think Laurence was doing his best to distract us from exactly how poor the UK figures are.  It may be true that other places have it even worse, but that doesn’t make what we’re doing excusable.  Similarly, he noted that Finland seemed to be the one place that has avoided an explosive growth in fixed-term researchers — they’ve kept a more balanced division in HE between researchers and permanent staff.  Of course he neglected to mention that Finland has worked to introduce tenure-track pathways which carry researchers smoothly into permanent posts, which is something UCEA could do, but clearly they have no interest in taking that step.

Now we diverged slightly into a discussion around the overproduction of PhD graduates, a topic which had popped up briefly in some earlier talks.  He noted that the current oversupply is not sustainable — we’ve had a 46% increase in doctoral grads since 2006, and the majority of these grads want an academic career.  Unfortunately, as we all know, academic careers are incredibly difficult to come by — the last figures I saw showed that only 12% of PhD grads get a post-doc, and out of those less than 10% are able to obtain a permanent academic job.  Meanwhile, despite Iain’s positive words about PhD graduates’ suitability for the business world, there are very few PhD-level researchers in business in the UK, and the numbers have actually dropped recently from 2.9% to 2.6% of PhD graduates.

As the talk meandered back toward researchers, Laurence shared the recommendations made by the UCEA report:

  • Review contractual arrangements for researchers
  • Manage researcher expectations
  • Ensure balance between research duties and teaching/admin duties
  • Improve status of research staff within institutions
  • Establish platforms for dialogue about research careers

Again these recommendations are profoundly disappointing.  None of these require any substantive action from UCEA itself — they’re just ‘reviewing’ or ‘improving’, no new solutions are being presented, no changes to the current arrangements are suggested.  I also suspect that ‘managing researcher expectations’ basically boils down to warning researchers ‘Hey, you know the conditions of your job will be terrible, right?  Better prepare yourself for that!’  Again one can’t look at these recommendations and believe that UCEA has any interest in actually addressing short-term contracts beyond a few token gestures.

Finally, Laurence finished up by asking whether our sector wants research-only careers that are distinct from academic careers.  Given that this would officially split fixed-term researchers into an exploited underclass with no hope of real advancement or prestige, I’d like to offer a resounding ‘NO’ in response to that question.

Panel Discussion

As the morning drew to a close our speakers gathered at the front again for questions.  One that caught my attention was a gentleman in front of me who asked Ruth what sort of ‘teeth’ are embedded in the Athena SWAN awards — in other words, what actually happens when an institution violates the principles they’re supposed to uphold?  Ruth said that so far no institutions or departments have had their awards rescinded, and that institutions are asked to send progress reports and analyses and demonstrate how they’re moving forward on gender equality and related issues.

Having seen what I’ve seen while working for the union, I suspect that said institutions and departments have got their spin doctors working overtime here.  I’ve seen more than my share of actions which should surely result in the loss of an Athena SWAN award, if departments truly are supposed to act on short-term contracts and so forth.  I wonder if there should be a campaign within the union to begin reporting these incidents directly to the Equality Challenge Unit?  Perhaps that would lead to a greater actual adherence to the principles laid out in the charter if there was an actual threat of awards being rescinded due to exploitative behaviour from departments and institutions.

There was also some discussion about why post-docs are not treated like academics when it comes to grant applications (a question posed by Dr Adam Glen again, who came wearing a home-made T-shirt saying ‘Why can’t a post-doc be a PI?’ on the front and ‘Post-docs are academics!’ on the back).  There was general agreement in the audience that there’s no reason why post-docs shouldn’t be allowed to submit grant applications.  Concerns were also raised that this strange restriction persists because the research councils are so dedicated to the idea of disbursing money almost exclusively to large, established groups who are seen as ‘safe bets’, and that keeping post-docs out of the running fits this agenda.  Adam suggested that small grants which have been cut in recent years should be re-established, as they allow post-docs to develop an independent research programme and become experienced academics.

Another member of the audience proposed that the Research Council could make progress on the fight against fixed-term research contracts by actually employing the researchers themselves on open-ended contracts as a sort of talent pool.  Projects that were funded would then be given researchers from the pool with the requisite domain knowledge, who would then return to the pool at the end of the project and await their next assignment.  This idea came up a few times during the day, and while it does have some attractive elements, I do wonder whether it just serve to divide permanent academics and post-docs even further.  I’d much rather see a system put in place which facilitates a transition from post-doc to established academic, and that allows researchers to remain as part of an institution independent of grant funding.  The system he was proposing would allow institutions to freely exploit researchers while taking no responsibility whatsoever, which is not a power I’d particularly like to give UCEA at this time.


In general the day provoked some vigorous discussion, and I enjoyed hearing what people had to say on these issues.  Most of all I was pleased to see how much people were engaging with the issues facing post-docs and fixed-term researchers in general, which is a topic I was focusing on in my previous work for the union.

However, the responses from some of the speakers were sadly rather predictable.  RCUK and UCEA both seemed to pay mere lip-service to the problems raised at the conference, offering nothing more than discussion forums and mentoring arrangements rather than actual significant, structural change.

I guess these talks reinforced the scale of these problems, and how they seem to be getting worse rather than better.  As several speakers said during the day, the research community as a whole needs to start taking responsibility if we are to make any progress, rather than passing the buck and pretending we’re all powerless to stop any of this.  Funding councils are in a position of great power, where they can demand change of institutions who seek to receive funding; UCEA could stop undermining researcher’s employment rights and engage with UCU in tackling short-term contracts and gender inequalities; and academics ourselves could stand up for each other and stop just putting our heads down and pretending the post-docs are doing just fine and they should really stop whining.

Put like this it all sounds pretty dire, but in fact I felt the day provides a bit of hope.  At least we had people representing all these parts of the research community in one room talking about these issues and challenging one another to develop new ideas.  That’s a start, and something worth building on.

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Rethinking UK Research Funding: Report, Part I

Yesterday I attend the Rethinking UK Research Funding conference at the University of Manchester.  We had quite a full day with plenty of interesting talks and discussion.  Since I’m starting some substantive work on this question now I kept some detailed notes during the course of the day, and I’m posting my thoughts here in case anyone finds it interesting.

I’m going to start by summarising the contents of the talks in the morning sessions.

Prof Adisa Adapagic, University of Manchester

Adisa opened the day with a look at how short-term funding affects research outcomes and integrity.  On a broader level, we know that the short-term nature of research finding has a number of effects on our research efforts:

  • Proposal preparation becomes a major time sink
  • Finding good researchers to join your projects can be difficult
  • The short timelines mean you may have a steep learning curve to climb in a short period
  • Publication pressure becomes even higher due to the time constraints
  • Reproducibility and reliability can suffer
  • Staff turnover increases
  • No continuity/job security for researchers

Reproducibility can suffer due to gaps in the data, or incomplete data, which can be difficult to deal with during a short project.  The quantity and reliability of your data may also be in question, but again that can be time-consuming to address.  These difficulties can then cause further problems during publication efforts, as the headlong rush to print can lead groups to take shortcuts.  Then we can end up with poorly-presented results based on incomplete data, and abstracts that oversell the paper’s contribution in order to make the project look good.

In order to improve these issues, Adisa proposed a few ideas:

  • Standardisation of data between disciplines
  • Use more open databases — stop clinging to your data!
  • Develop quality control methods

On the funding side, she argues that changes must be made to reduce these pressures that can lead to breaches of ethics.  Research funding is said to be ‘impact-driven’, but funding is short-term and impact is long-term (10+ years).  This leads to ethics pressures:

  • Chasing money means changing research direction — even into areas we don’t know that well
  • Publication pressures, particularly for young researchers
  • Publications suffer as we seek quantity over quality
  • Frequent self-plagiarism to produce papers faster
  • Reproducibility suffers due to poor quality/presentation of results

So what can we do to improve this situation?  Adisa offered a few suggestions on a general level:

  • Change from ‘short-termism’ to ‘long-termism’ — offer funding for longer-term projects
  • Change funding models completely to alleviate the pressure to get big grants all the time
  • Consider quality and integrity in assessing results
  • Develop ways to self-regulate our ethics
  • Push journals to get involved — their practices can exacerbate these problems

Peter Simpson — Director, N8 Research Partnership

Next up was Peter Simpson from the N8 Research Partnership, which focuses on fostering collaboration between academia and industry.  As a result his presentation focused more on funding considerations for interdisciplinary collaborations with businesses, which is not something I worry about too much but could certainly be relevant for other colleagues.

Peter summarised some of the challenges inherent to academia-industry collaboration:

  • Long-term partnerships are critical
  • First projects are often difficult, so long-term work allows better ideas to develop and flourish
  • Each side has different levels of urgency — businesses often seek quicker results
  • Openness and trust have to grow over time
  • Short-term funding can make these challenges more acute

The N8 Research Partnership itself seeks to promote research partnerships in the North of England.  The motivation here is to develop northern universities into ‘anchor institutions’ for regional economies.  In a post-industrial landscape where the former manufacturing powerhouses of the North are looking to rebuild their economies around research and innovation, the N8 sees itself as a key facilitator in building collaborations that can move this process forward.

In doing so, however, some challenges come to the foreground:

  • Culture clashes between academia and business
  • Unrealistic expectations from the business side
  • Frequent personnel changes and project closures can slow progress
  • Transparency can be an issue for the academics (we don’t like dealing with corporate secrecy!)
  • Business sometimes view academia as a cheap source of research (but less so nowadays)

In order to alleviate these issues, Peter suggested that academics should reinforce their innovative contributions by not just ‘doing what we’re told’ but suggesting and championing new ideas for these projects.  He proposed that ‘long-term thinking on short-term projects’ can remind businesses that academics are in a unique position to understand the research landscape and look further ahead to issues that will be important to businesses years down the line.

In terms of funding concerns, Peter suggested a few ways that funders could support this kind of work:

  • Undertake regular collaboration ‘health checks’
  • Ensure the continuity of lab-based scientists and project leads
  • Support the involvement of researchers with broader skill sets
  • Incorporate industrial collaboration in early-career researcher (ECR) training
  • Facilitate face-to-face meetings with higher-ups for junior research staff

Elizabeth Bohm — Senior Policy Advisor, The Royal Society

Elizabeth spoke to us about the culture of research in the UK, which was the subject of a major report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.  The aim of this project was to develop a constructive debate on the culture of research in the UK.  The final report was based on numerous discussion events and surveys performed in various areas of the UK research community.

When UK scientists were asked what words define good research, these were the top 5:

  1. Rigorous
  2. Accurate
  3. Original
  4. Honest
  5. Transparent

However the report also revealed a great deal of trepidation amongst the UK research community.  A few worries in particular topped the list:

  • Excessive competition
  • Funding issues
  • Research assessment methods
  • Research integrity
  • Career progression
  • Workload

In general we feel that science is extremely competitive, and that this brings out some of the best in us and also a great deal of the worst.  Funding in particular is an issue for UK academics:

  • Current trends lead to loss of creativity and innovation
  • Funding is too short-term
  • Funders are often risk-averse
  • Funds are disproportionately awarded to already-established scientists
  • Transparency issues — why are some projects not funded?

Research assessment is also a major concern, with some 58% of UK scientists stating that either they or their colleagues have been under pressure to compromise their research ethics in order to publish or receive research funds.  Young scientists under the age of 35 in particular report very high pressure in this area.  Elizabeth suggested that research institutions should provide training in good research practice from the very start of our academic careers, since it seems that the pressures of trying to establish oneself in science while under pressure to achieve quickly can lead to temptations to break ethics.

Career issues are another major area of concern:

  • Women in particular find it difficult to advance their careers
  • Culture of short-term results and productivity creates high pressure
  • Lack of time to think and start innovative projects
  • Very high stress levels in general
  • 54% of respondents think promotion systems have a negative impact on science in the UK

These results suggest that broader assessment criteria for promotion, mentoring practices within institutions, and developing good gender equality standards and guidance are critical to pushing back against these trends.

In general these core issues were reported by a very broad range of respondents, and there appears to be widespread agreement that these problems negatively impact UK science.  The report concludes that competition in science is a double-edged sword — it can push researchers to pursue loftier goals, but it also creates a great deal of stress, negative working environments, and a disproportionate focus on short-term results and quick publication.

Elizabeth points out that many of the stakeholders in UK research expressed a belief that these problems are out of their control — academics blame funders or managers, funders blame government, institutions blame academics, etc.  Thus in order to find a way forward, the entire community needs to engage in productive discussion about these problems and develop solutions that we can all get behind.

Andrew Miller — Former MP for Ellesmore Port and Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

Andrew gave an interesting talk which was quite different in tone from the previous speakers.  As a former MP he spoke in the style of a politician — discussing some of the intricacies of government, relating stories and experiences while he was in government, and leaving aside the PowerPoint slides and bulleted lists.  As a consequence of this my notes here are rather less detailed, so I’ll just outline some generalities here.

Andrew seemed very aware about the issues posed by short-term funding pressures in science.  He argued that this focus on short-term results makes the research structure less robust overall — perhaps because this kind of funding environment leads to a focus on ‘safe’ research that relates to currently-fashionable problems, rather than leading the way on larger issues that await our society in the future.  He echoed previous speakers’ calls for reducing this time pressure, and expressed his belief that easing this pressure would make it easier for scientists to maintain their ethical frameworks rather than compromising themselves to obtain funding for their projects.

He spoke for some time as well about the need for researchers to engage more effectively with elected officials.  While the research councils are the people who actually disburse the funding, the structure of that system is imposed by central government — so when we have major concerns with how that structure operates, we need to lobby Parliament and government to raise our concerns.  In relation to this he discussed how the current government will be publishing a green paper soon on a proposed reorganisation of research funding in the UK.  Unfortunately this may mean some rather sweeping changes, including the consolidation of all the research councils into a single council, and of course the rumoured massive cuts in funding.  This would be a disaster, given that already the UK only spends 1.3% of its GDP on research — as compared to 7.8% in South Korea, 4.4% in Japan, etc.

I have to say I very much agree with Andrew’s statements on this front.  I’ve been very concerned that the only advocates we seem to have for universities and for research funding are our Vice-Chancellors and our research council leaders, neither of whom seem at all inclined to challenge the order of things in government.  Our union, UCU, works hard to lobby Parliament on these issues, but given the constant, sweeping, highly-damaging changes to UK higher education which the government imposes upon us all too frequently, it is difficult for the union to address research issues in sufficient depth.  With that in mind I feel we as academics need to organise some campaigns which express our discontent with the way things are going, and we must be prepared to stand up for ourselves if research funding is cut yet again.

Panel Discussion

At this point the speakers all gathered at the front of the room, where we had a brief panel discussion with questions from the audience.  Part of this was a discussion about publication norms, as a colleague in the audience (Dr Adam Glen, an outspoken advocate for post-docs) challenged Prof Adapagic on her status as an editor for two Elsevier journals — Elsevier being a highly-controversial academic publisher that charges exorbitant fees for journal subscriptions while posting absolutely enormous profit margins (by exploiting free academic labour that provides content and peer review).  She responded by expressing regret but saying that our research culture at the moment requires a certain amount of acceptance of these evil publishers so that we may advance our work.

I followed up by asking an admittedly aggressive question, pointing out that my two favourite journals at the moment (JASSS and Demographic Research) are both entirely open-access and charge no article publication fees.  I asked why we need for-profit publishers at all, when we live in the year 2015 in which server costs are minimal and basically anyone who wants to could start an open-access journal online and charge nothing for subscriptions or publication as long as they can stump up £10/month.  Prof Adapagic replied that she agreed with me entirely (!), but that she remained in a relationship with Elsevier despite being fully aware of how her work and expertise is being exploited because ‘we have to deal with this’ in our current research culture.  Elizabeth Bohm then jumped in to say that The Royal Society is hoping to improve things by experimenting with new modes of online publishing.  She said that for-profit publishers should remain in the sector because they have produced innovation in publication models in the past.

I strongly disagreed with this last point, because for-profit publishers have been completely behind the times in terms of open-access and Creative Commons publishing since their inception, and any ‘innovation’ they have produced was purely designed to allow them to continue to receive profits on the back of labour funded by the public purse while giving our community as few concessions as possible.  The chair of the session wanted to move on, however, so we left it there.

After this we had a tea break before the second session of talks, so I’m going to do the same now!  Tune in later for the second part of my excessively long summary of the conference.

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Rethinking UK Research Funding

This Wednesday I’ll be traveling to Manchester for a conference titled Rethinking UK Research Funding which is part of the University of Manchester’s Policy Week 2015.  The speakers include representatives from UCEA and Research Councils UK — I hope they are prepared for rather pointed questions from the academics in the room!  The University and College Union is also supporting the conference (Michael MacNeil will be there, for those of you familiar with the union’s names and faces).

Today the blog for the conference updated with a reading list which includes a number of interesting papers.  I wrote to the organisers with two additional citations from the ‘Simulating the Social Processes of Science’ angle, in the hopes that we might gain some more interested parties on the back of this:
Modelling Academic Research Funding as a Resource Allocation Problem

Innovation Suppression and Clique Evolution in Peer-Review-Based, Competitive Research Funding Systems: An Agent-Based Model

Update: The organisers have just written to say they will add these two papers to the website as well.

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Nobel Laureate Dr Hideki Shirakawa on the challenges facing researchers today

Recently the Asahi Shimbun, a major newspaper in Japan, published a fascinating interview with Dr Hideki Shirakawa, Nobel laureate in chemistry who won the prize in 2000 for his work with polyacetylene.  The interview covers a lot of ground, but what struck me in particular are his comments about the current research environment in Japan and his concerns about how the changing landscape of academia is affecting our search for new scientific knowledge.

The interview is not available in English, so I’m quoting here from a translation provided by my wife with a bit of editing from myself.

Dr Shirakawa’s concerns come to light early in the interview.  After a bit of discussion and congratulations regarding the three Japanese scientists who are being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics this year, he answers some questions about the status of science in Japan:

Do you think Japan became a science superpower?

“I don’t want to use the word ‘science superpower’. I would rather say ‘a country that places a high value on science’. In that sense, Japan still has a long way to go. The research results won the Nobel Prize after 20 or 30 years of hard work. This did not happen because the current research environment is good nor because the national universities were incorporated. I doubt if the number of Japanese Nobel winners will be increasing at a high pace. I think we shouldn’t be optimistic.”

What do you mean?

“I’m afraid both the Japanese government and society are pushing too hard for the production of quick results in science and technology. It is true that the government research budget has increased, but those who received larger research funds are those who have very clear objectives. If you look at the basic research which sustains this work with clear objectives, you will see that the national universities which used to be a primary location for basic research no longer provide environments where researchers can do their work freely. That is my concern.”

“Before the national universities were incorporated, the main research fund was a non-competitive fund called the ‘Integration School Fund’ which was assigned based on the number of teachers at a university, and we could do basic research with this fund. This fund was not enough, so we also got a competitive fund called ‘Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Kakenhi)’. But nowadays, a significant portion of research funding has become competitive funding.”

The total amount of your research funding was about 200 million yen before you retired?

“Yes. That’s the total amount I used for 34 years until I retired from the University of Tsukuba. It is very small, compared with my current research project where I can use a several billion yen in 5 years. Out of that total there was only about 60 million yen which I could use freely, but I could use this to research on the theme I like and spend time on it as much as I like. That was important. The same with the these three winners [of the Nobel Prize in Physics], there was a research atmosphere where people were willing to tackle difficult themes which would not produce results immediately.”

The importance of basic research has been recognised though.

“I’m not certain either the government who allocates research funds nor the society who expects the results truly understands this importance. Lots of people show interest in a research project like the space probe ‘Hayabusa’ which captures rock samples from an asteroid. But there are many basic research projects which don’t attract such attention. They are often very inefficient. But if people start saying ‘OK, let’s not do it’, then the progress of science and technology will stop. We must accept the fact that it is very inefficient – I want society to have that deep insight.”

Dr Shirakawa points out that both he and the recent Nobel winners in Physics were able to enjoy a research environment which fostered exploration and experimentation and a focus on basic research.  Without this academic freedom, they would not have been able to explore these ‘inefficient’ insights which eventually led to revolutionary ideas.  The recent incorporation of Japanese national universities and the increasing focus on competitive funding has led to a narrowing of research goals and a focus on productivity rather than discovery.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Dr Shirakawa goes on to describe how his ability to explore new topics as a young researcher fostered his later discoveries:

When you were doing the research on plastics for which you won the Nobel Prize, did you imagine that it would be used so widely, such as in our mobile phones and LCD screens?

“I didn’t. I was interested in why electricity did not flow through the polymer, and was interested in why it might flow. When I was going to change my theme as I finished a certain amount of my project, I happened to meet Dr. MacDiarmid from the United States and he showed interest in my research and invited me to America. Thanks to this, my research developed very rapidly and led to the Prize. When I look back, my lab at the university was not my first choice — I ended up there because I lost the rock-paper-scissors game. I also liked assembling radios, so I went to the Faculty of Electronic Engineering, and I also liked growing plants so I went to the Faculty of Agriculture. I was interested in anything, and experienced many things. All those things led to my later achievement.”

So, your path to discovery was not a single straight road without a branch?

“No, but then I had freedom. I worry about the situation today’s young researchers are stuck in. At universities fixed-term positions limited to three or five years are increasing. It takes one year to launch a lab, another year to organise the experimental data and write a paper. You can hardly finish one paper. It’s not fair to be evaluated by that. It’s impossible to focus on research, and people will only choose themes on which they can write a paper in a short period of time. I’m afraid it prevents creative research.”

Dr Shirakawa credits his early explorations with his later successes, and I think it’s safe to say this is not an unusual sentiment.  Over the years we’ve seen many prominent scientists describe their circuitous paths to innovation.  Fostering intellectual curiosity and allowing for the free association and connection of seemingly disparate ideas often seems to be a key ingredient in producing new concepts and ideas..

Yet at the moment young researchers are most often placed into short-term positions with very defined goals.  We face tremendous pressure to produce outputs on one particular project immediately upon arrival, and attempts to explore related or potentially related ideas are actively discouraged.  Research is viewed now as a production line in which we think on specified topics during specified hours and are expected to produce innovations deserving of published scientific papers on a regular basis.  Personally I agree with Dr Shirakawa that much of the blame for this shift in our environment comes down to the increasing importance of competitive funding.

Scientists, like anyone else, are good adapters, and so we have coped with the pressures induced by these changes by finding ways to ‘salami-slice’ our ideas into ever-smaller bits, presenting more and more papers centred around tiny, iterative steps rather than fully-fledged chunks of work.  I recall reading recently that the United Kingdom alone produced something like 195,000 journal articles in 2012 alone.  Out of those, how many are actually worth reading?  Out of that subset, how many actually change our way of thinking about a certain idea?

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most scientists, when pressed, would agree that the quantity of published papers is not particularly correlated to the strength of a given researcher’s body of work.  We know about salami-slicing, after all; we all have to do it to survive any of a number of performance metrics applied to us ensure that we’re doing enough busywork to justify our continued receipt of a salary.  We know about the dodgy journals, the importance of knowing the right people, the many and varied flaws in our systems of peer review.  We’ve all had that one paper that got rejected because one of those reviewers just doesn’t like our methodology, and no amount of revision will convince them otherwise.

And yet each year we seem to be under more pressure, and these problems continue to fester.  Fewer and fewer of us are able to enjoy, as Dr Shirakawa did, some time to explore widely and allow basic research to flourish.  We’re rapidly approaching an era when the majority of academics will have come up through the current environment.

I worry that, unless we think deeply about how we fund research and how we employ researchers, we will lose what we few opportunities we have left to pursue basic research.  We will lose more creative minds to industry, when we should be fostering their growth in an environment dedicated to open learning and discovery rather than profit.

I’m encouraged that we have more and more scientists openly discussing these problems now — at least the conversation is happening.  But we have to ensure that it doesn’t remain only a conversation, and we must be as inclusive as possible in these efforts, because as we can see from Dr Shirakawa’s words, this is a global problem.

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Modelling Research Careers

Thanks to the stimulating discussions that came about during and after the recent Simulating the Social Processes of Science workshop, I’ve been making a start on a research proposal which combines two of my major interests: simulating institutions and social interactions; and inequalities in research careers.

At the moment, my colleagues and I are putting together an executive summary of our idea, which is still taking shape. We hope to develop computer simulations of the current career structure of the academic community, focusing on the recent explosion of insecure short-term contracts for postdoctoral researchers. Here’s a sneak preview of the executive summary:


The academic community in the UK has become an increasingly casualised workforce in recent years; some 74% of researchers are on fixed-term contracts. Insecure employment can have significant impact on individual researchers, such as increased stress levels or reduced productivity due to the need to spend significant time searching for further work. However, the systemic impact of this trend on academic institutions and on the broader research community has yet to be investigated in any significant way.

As a result of the prevalence of fixed-term contracts, academic institutions face numerous challenges: a much-increased rate of staff turnover; regular and frequent loss of specialized skill-sets; high costs of training new staff; and the inability to retain skilled young researchers with high potential. More broadly, the academic community as a whole may face a loss of overall productivity as increasing numbers of young researchers lose research time to complications of the career structure, and the consequent lack of sustained, long-term research efforts due to the short-term focus necessitated by fixed-term work. This research programme will examine the impact of the career structure of academia on research productivity using innovative modelling frameworks.

Aside from the obvious self-interest at play here, in that I’m currently stuck in this situation myself, what I find most compelling about this idea is what we may learn about the structural problems of academia. As the use of fixed-term contracts has been increasing, we’ve seen a number of fundamental shifts in the ways that universities operate. We see a much greater emphasis on attracting international students, competing for international recognition, and an ever-expanding management structure which puts academics under constant, ceaseless scrutiny. Understanding the effects of these changes will be a major part of this proposal, and I hope that the insights we gain from this work might help us develop alternative approaches to conducting research — approaches that might help academics regain their autonomy and job security.

The next major step in fleshing out this proposal is to develop our theoretical framework more.  Focusing on the impact of research career structures on research outputs will help us to make the case for this work to potential funders, who will certainly have an interest in discovering how our current structures might be made more productive.  But at the same time, looking more deeply at how these structures have evolved and what institutional changes in universities have facilitated these problems will be more enticing to other working academics who might be interested in collaborating with us.

So, much work remains to be done.  Comments and ideas are always welcome.

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Science and the press: Who’s to blame?

There’s an interesting article in the New Yorker today about Neuroscience called ‘Neuroscience Fiction’, which comments about the recent fashion for neuro-everything: neuroeconomics, neuroethics, etc. etc.  Perhaps, finally, we’re beginning to reach the end of this trend?  The article implies that we are, which is good news — yet this doesn’t erase the fact that the past two decades of this indicate science is becoming increasingly dominated by what sells rather than by what is useful.

That article links to another by Alissa Quart which has an interesting quote on this:

“A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.

The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, creating phenomena like neuro law, which, in part, uses the evidence of damaged brains as the basis for legal defense of people accused of heinous crimes, or neuroaesthetics, a trendy blend of art history and neuroscience.”

In science we’re very quick to blame the science journalists for willfully distorting research to make headlines.  Yet as Alissa points out, the researchers themselves are the ones pushing a fair bit of this nonsense — and they don’t necessarily speak up when their findings hit the headlines, distorted or not.  We’re in an environment where competition for funding is paramount, where permanent jobs are scarcer than ever, and where the pressure to find a unique niche is extremely high as a result — so creating that niche sometimes becomes more critical than performing good research.  We sometimes end up trying to squeeze together whatever ideas we can find into a lump just big enough to produce another published paper, then see how far we can milk it.

Speaking personally I know that I roll my eyes whenever I see one of the endless procession of papers in my field that applies autopoiesis to everything in the world ever.  I believe it’s part of the same process, on the whole, and it’s something we need to find a way to curtail.

With that in mind, where do our responsibilities lie here?  Do we call out our colleagues when they do dumb stuff, or do we direct our ire at nonsense only when it hits the popular press?  Do we try to keep our own community in line, and in doing so risk alienation (a true disaster for those of us low on the career ladder desperate for networking opportunities)?

It’s a difficult question.  After all, many of our colleagues do dumb stuff because they believe that dumb stuff, and so taking them to task over it is very unlikely to be productive.  I know I’ve certainly decided that someone is a jerk when they criticised me for reasons I believed to be ill-founded.  In the end, my paper stayed how it was, and the only thing that changed was that I resolved never to endorse or otherwise encourage the work of that individual.

Of course, my paper may very well have been dumb and I just simply don’t see it, but even if that is the case at this point the vast majority of scientific papers are dumb and/or uninteresting — so where do we draw the line?  How do we pick the particularly egregiously dumb stuff out of the endless piles that science produces these days?  Isn’t a certain amount of dumbness a necessary precursor to doing something of greater interest, a byproduct of early explorations?

My feeling is that science is now reaching a critical decision point in this respect.  Last year the UK alone published 124,000 journal articles.  Out of those, I expect we could skip at least 99% of these without losing much — very few papers have truly ground-breaking results to report.  At some stage we have to find a way to reduce this pressure to publish anything and everything at all costs, or we will simply drown in the resulting mess — and all the while, unscrupulous types will craft some of that mess into misleading headlines to make a buck or to build a reputation.

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Persistence and Uncertainty in the Academic Career

Good article for those of us who are substantially irked by the short-sighted use of fixed-term contracts in academia:  (PDF download link on the right-hand side)

The important bit of the abstract:

“We introduce a model of proportional growth which reproduces these two observations, and additionally accounts for the significantly right-skewed distributions of career longevity and achievement in science. Using this theoretical model, we show that short-term contracts can amplify the effects of competition and uncertainty making careers more vulnerable to early termination, not necessarily due to lack of individual talent and persistence, but because of random negative production shocks. We show that fluctuations in scientific production are quantitatively related to a scientist’s collaboration radius and team efficiency.”

And the discussion gives a nice summary:

“One serious drawback of short-term contracts are the tedious employment searches, which displace career momentum by taking focus energy away from the laboratory, diminishing the quality of administrative performance within the institution, and limiting the individual’s time to serve the community through external outreach [3, 6]. These momentum displacements can directly transform into negative productivity shocks to scientific output. As a result, there may be increased pressure for individuals in short-term contracts to produce quantity over quality, which encourages the presentation of incomplete analysis and diminishes the incentives to perform sound science. These changing features may precipitate in a ‘tragedy of the scientific commons’….

However, this model also shows that the onset of a fluctuation-dominant (volatile) labor market can also be amplified when the labor market is governed by short-term contracts  reinforced by a short-term appraisal system. In such a system, career sustainability relies on continued recent short-term production, which can encourage rapid publication of low-quality science. In professions where there is a high level of competition for employment, bottlenecks form whereby most careers stagnate and fail to rise above an initial achievement barrier. Instead, these careers stagnate, and in a profession that shows no mercy for production lulls, these careers undergo a ‘sudden death’ because they were ‘frozen out’ by a labor market that did not provide insurance against endogenous fluctuations. Such a system is an employment ‘death trap’ whereby most careers stagnate and ‘flat-line’ at zero production. However, at the same time, a small fraction of the population overcomes the initial selection barrier and are championed as the ‘big winners’, possibly only due to random

This makes for compelling reading, especially given that the usual justification for the use of fixed-term contracts seems to be the alleged benefits of the inevitable competition for posts — which our overlords would have us believe allows the cream to rise to the top.  What we see here is that, in contrast to the management view, short-term contracts amplify the effects of problems in research production, and those who rise to the top may have done so purely by being lucky rather than particularly skilled.  Meanwhile, the system creates a massive wastage of talent by cutting short potentially promising careers, given that research productivity can be stunted by problems in research teams (which continue to grow larger and more complex over time) or unfortunate bad luck in experiment outcomes or similar, and not necessarily by a lack of effort or skill.

Meanwhile, the focus on short-term contracts with short-term appraisals leads to an intense pressure to publish sub-par science more frequently, rather than well-considered, long-term research with more potential impact.  The loss of productivity due to worries over job insecurity and time-consuming, highly-competitive job application procedures is also not to be underestimated.

When I started my first postdoc I was advised to start looking for my next job when I still had a year left on my contract.  I did so and found, as most others do, that finding an appropriate academic position is very difficult due to the extreme specialisation of every post — if you’re unlucky and there’s not much in your area kicking off when you happen to be looking, you might end up struggling for work through no fault of your own.  Not to mention that it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to send 50+ pages of material to each potential job, causing me to waste rather a lot of time that I could’ve been using for my research.  In the end, getting your next post seems to rely much more on luck, timing, and networking than anything else.

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