How universities incentivise academics to short-change the public

This 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?

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. His research interests lie in what has occasionally been described as “extreme nanotech” in that he works alongside a talented bunch of nanoscientists to prod, poke, push, pick, and pull individual atoms and molecules in order to explore forces and interactions down to the single chemical bond limit. Moriarty also has a keen and long-standing interest in science communication and public engagement. He is a member of the Sixty Symbols team that was awarded the Institute of Physics Kelvin prize in 2016 for “innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics”. While he doesn't share his infamous namesake's fascination with the binomial theorem, Moriarty enjoys exploring the maths-music-physics interface including, in particular, the deep and fundamental links that exist between quantum mechanics and heavy metal music (a theme discussed at length in his book, “When the Uncertainty Principle Goes to 11”). He blogs at
Philip Moriarty

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