Blame the University, Management and Administration

A London college is about fire hundreds of academics. David Colquhoun, a UK-based pharmacologist and an academic at Nottingham University UK has written about it. Colquhoun’s article is restricts itself to details of the obscure episode. Philip Moriarty of Nottingham has more general observations.

Colquhoun notes with no (apparent) trace of irony that being unceremoniously dumped was formerly a fate reserved for post-doctoral candidates.

Until recently, this problem was largely restricted to post-doctoral fellows (postdocs). They already have PhDs and they are the people who do most of the experiments.

Moriarty says his job is not to ‘secure research income’ but ‘to do high-quality research’.

A few reminders might be useful for Colquhoun and Moriarty.

In ‘regular’ times, university administrators are not the only ones who use publication records and grants as a metric for assessing ‘productivity’. Scientists do it. From lowly two-cubicle one-bench labs to the two-dozen-postdoc factories that churn out papers, grad students and professors talk in terms of abstracts and papers. Scientific productivity is measured in numbers of papers, grant money and number of grants. It is the lingua franca of scientific gossip, it is how scientists look up and down each other. The small labs behave no differently from the big ones.

Doing science and quality research takes a peculiar bent of mind. You might be surprised but this bent of mind is not a requisite to be in a lab. Hard work, diligence, a cheerful nature and obedience are. Let’s suppose you are actually fit to do science but lack one of these abilities. There is a good chance you’ll get drummed out.

Contrary to what Moriarty implies, there are no jobs that are about ‘doing high-quality research’. Despite attempts to the contrary, scientific advancement remains largely a product of serendipity (and pigheadedness). Science is a lottery – you may be brilliant and do high-quality work, but what you produce could well end up being crap.

In addition, Moriarty implies having more scientists in jobs is a public entitlement. But the forces of feedback set in motion by the very academics arguing vigorously for restrictions have to act somewhere.

For instance, you are a social sciences researcher consistently arguing for a carbon tax – with high-quality research. The state government listens, uses your papers as evidence and passes laws. Factories and farms shut down, the tax kitty dries up and soon you are having to close your lab and let go of your post-doc.

Go ahead, blame administration and management.

UPDATE: Stew Green points out in comments my post seemed to club Colquhoun and Moriarty’s views together. I thought I was separating the two in my first paragraph but maybe it was not clear enough.

Colquhoun refers to a PNAS article by former NAS head Bruce Alberts and former NIH boss Harold Varmus in his support. Interestingly, PNAS published a response (h/t Anthony Watts):

In their article, Alberts and co point out what they say is the ‘root cause’ of problems with research funding:

We believe that the root cause of the widespread malaise is a longstanding assumption that the biomedical research system in the United States will expand indefinitely at a substantial rate.

When people say they have identified a cause, they usually have identified an effect. The PNAS authors are no different here. An assumption, or an impression that biomedical research will ‘expand indefinitely’ but held by whom?

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4 comments

  1. stewgreen

    scientists shutup complaining and get yourself an agent, you don’t have right to suck on the taxpayer for free.
    – Colquhoun is a god at fighting big company corruption of science, however he is wrong on this. I’m suspicious of the dramatic style and lack of alternative solutions.
    “Moriarty implies having more scientists in jobs is a public entitlement”
    YES That’s not that the university is right in using grants as a metric. But basically it’s public money and should be held accountable somehow.
    De Bono the master thinker laid out clear reasons why universities are NOT automaticaly a good thing and should generally be closed and education be moved to be lifelong and in the job and financed by the businesses and employees not the public.
    Clearly if more research were privately funded wastage of money would be the investors problem, not the taxpayers.
    – The grant chasing system of the public sector is a mess, scientists should not spend 50% of their time on that, but we freelancers do spend time selling ourselves to customers, and researchers should do that aswell or that part could be subcontracted to an agent or boss. If you are a grant giver you need to metrics to tell you who to give the grants to and with private biz the metruc is profit. Public grant givers are not spending their money wisely if the receivers are slending 50% of their time promoting themselves. I have no madter solution, but at least I admit that.

  2. David Colquhoun

    If you had looked a bit more carefully, you would have seen that I didn’t blame administrators, but (mostly) senior scientists. Neither did I suggest that their is any entitlement to a particular number of employees. What I actually said is that it was bad financial planning if you suddenly discover that you need to fire so many people, and, especially, that to fire them on the basis of grant income is a downright stupid.criterion.

  3. Shub Niggurath

    You are right. You didn’t say those things. Neither did I say you did either.

    The standing rule in academic science is assessment of ‘productivity’ – papers, grants and money. It is hypocritical to blame administration for bad planning for judging people on the basis of the same metric by which scientists judge each other. There is no way to gradually fire people. It will always come across as ‘sudden’.

  4. stewgreen

    Top respect to Colquhoun for engaging here. Shub did seem to suggest to me that Moriaty and Colquhuon were talking along the same lines. But C suggested above he’s not talking about entitlement to a job” rather it was :
    1. using grant income as a metric
    2. the suddeness of sweeping changes.
    Yep, it’s only fair if the researchers know from the beginning, that at the end of the year you’ll be out, if you doidn’t bring enough grant money. And it’s importsat in biz to be seen as fair otherwise who’ll want to work or buy from you ?
    – Still I think it’s a good idea thay researchers have an agent (maybe a union) who’ll assert their worth rathet than just rely on the managements kindness. Lovelock seems to to do OK as an independent scientist.