A Gloom of Uninspired Research

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit down today. Being stuck at home with a fever and sore throat, and with mounting backlog of things to do isn’t helping my mood. On top of that I’ve got a general sense of depression about the future.

On the one hand there’s the prospect of huge increases in tuition fees for students, the motivation for many demonstrations all around the country (including an occupation here at Cardiff). I have to admit I’m firmly on the side of the students. It seems to me that what is happening is that whereas we used to finance our national gluttony by borrowing on over-valued property prices, we’ve now decided to borrow instead from the young, forcing them to pay for what we got for free instead of paying for it ourselves; it’s no wonder they’re angry. Call me old-fashioned, but I think universities should be funded out of general taxation. How many universities, and what courses, are different questions and I suspect I differ from the younger generation on the answers.

The other depressing thing relates to the other side of academic life, research. The tide of managerialism looks like sweeping away every last vestige of true originality in scientific research, in a drive for greater “efficiency”. I’ve already blogged about how the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is introducing a new system for grants which will make it impossible for individual researchers with good ideas to get money to start new research projects. Now it seems the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is going to go down the same road. It looks likely that in future only large-scale, low-risk research done in big consortia will be funded. Bandwagons are in; creativity is out.

Improving “efficiency” sounds like a good idea, but efficiency of what? These plans may reduce the cost of administering research grants, but they won’t do anything to increase the rate of scientific progress. Still, scientific progress can’t be entered easily on a spreadsheet so I suppose in this day and age that means it doesn’t matter.

I found the following in a story in this weeks Times Higher,

A spokeswoman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council also cited stability and flexibility as the main rationales for merging its grants programmes into one “consolidated grant”, a move announced earlier this month.

It looks like STFC has seconded someone from the  Ministry of Truth. The change to STFC’s grant system is in fact driven by two factors. One is to save money, which is what they’ve been told to do so no criticism there. The other is that the costly fiasco that is the new RCUK Shared Services Centre was so badly conceived that it has a grant system that is unable to adminster 5-year rolling grants of the type we have been used to having in astronomy. On top of that, research grants will last only 3 years (as opposed to the previous 5-year duration). There’s a typically Orwellian inversion  going on in our spokesperson’s comment: for “stability and flexibility”, read “instability and inflexibility”.

We’re not children. We all know that times are tough, but we could do with a bit less spin and a bit more honesty from the people ruining running British science. Still, I’m sure the resident spin doctors at STFC are “efficient”, and these days that’s all that matters.

The following excerpt from Wordsworth’s The Excursion pretty much sums it up.

Life’s autumn past, I stand on winter’s verge;
And daily lose what I desire to keep:
Yet rather would I instantly decline
To the traditionary sympathies
Of a most rustic ignorance, and take
A fearful apprehension from the owl
Or death-watch: and as readily rejoice,
If two auspicious magpies crossed my way;–
To this would rather bend than see and hear
The repetitions wearisome of sense,
Where soul is dead, and feeling hath no place;
Where knowledge, ill begun in cold remark
On outward things, with formal inference ends;
Or, if the mind turn inward, she recoils
At once–or, not recoiling, is perplexed–
Lost in a gloom of uninspired research;
Meanwhile, the heart within the heart, the seat
Where peace and happy consciousness should dwell,
On its own axis restlessly revolving,
Seeks, yet can nowhere find, the light of truth.


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14 Responses to “A Gloom of Uninspired Research”

  1. Sign, just as the Sun was coming out…..

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: maybe your cold is making your mood too black. I don’t see that the new system of consolidated grants will “make it impossible for individual researchers with good ideas to get money to start new research projects”. I haven’t seen the new guidelines, but I bet it’ll be like rollers. When it’s Cardiff’s turn, you guys will have to package together N self-contained PDRA cases that sit underneath some overview of broad general aims. The AGP will decide it likes M out of the N and give you funding for that many bodies. Then Cardiff can spend the money how it wants. So if you have a good idea for a new project, you have to persuade your colleagues to put it in the bid. And if you persuade them, then Cardiff can fund your idea independent of what ranking the AGP uses for justifying its allocations (although any strong AGP criticism of a given line has to be taken seriously). Better that you get to argue out your corner over months with people you see every day than have it all come down to the roll of the dice of the AGP reading a few pages of text in a standard grand application. You also have the chance to get funding not in quanta of 3 years: e.g. a consolidated grant might spend 1 year of money on a finishing student to get some papers out and get your idea off the ground. You might argue that people who are off the barycentre of a department may get squeezed (the sole gamma-ray astronomer in a radio-astronomy group, say) – but I can easily think of examples where groups with rolling support do give money to exactly such fringe activities. In the end, a group will want to spend money on stuff that’s excellent, and if you have a great idea then I suspect your colleagues will support you. But if an academic can’t persuade his/her colleagues that their ideas are any good, despite plenty of time to air the arguments, then do you really think they should get funding?

    • Woken Postdoc Says:

      One’s nearby colleagues are not necessarily the good guys. Unless you’re the boss, your own department can be the bitterest of zero-sum games. “Consolidation” will deepen the existing local struggle between strategies and bandwidths and bandwagons and professorial harems. Your best allies are your collaborators in other, unaffected institutions.

      The biggest sub-group in each department will churn out ever more mass-produced spam-papers. As cuts bite, the herd will grow at the expense of the individualists. This enables the herd to confect even more repetitive “productivity.” The tumor keeps growing. The upper professors will always be able to justify it with sophistry about “efficiency” and “strategy”. There’ll be soothing words of consolation for the losers, but a monoculture is doomed to emerge.

      It already happens. I know plenty of brighter young scientists who’ve been backstabbed in grubby internal intrigues (since the STFC debacle began). Peter has forecast the *present* condition, not a dystopian future.

    • telescoper Says:

      John,

      Not all departments run as meritocracies, and the problem of persuading colleagues often boils down to seniority rather than scientific quality. It’s the younger folks that suffer in such situations.

      Peter

    • Woken Postdoc Says:

      In a less-than-meritocratic department, the benefits of seniority can be held selfishly by the boss. He’ll have some grand strategic vision that (somehow) he cannot communicate to anyone else. He’ll grunt when confronted, but ultimately do whatever he pleases within the official terms of the grant.

      Alternatively, the advantages of power can be traded downwards through webs of influence. Sufficiently cynical senior guys know how to contrive covering excuses to justify special perks and extra resources given to a currently favoured subordinate. Maybe they’ll decide to give an extra boost to the Boss Professor’s pliable, favourite ex-student? Or, maybe the loud young lecturer with the shortest mini-skirts? (That’ll give everyone a soothing inner glow of “feminism!”) They’ll raise some careers and ruin others, on the figmentary basis of self-fulfilling expectations. Sometimes the excuses for preference are deliberate and mendacious; at other times it may only be hapless groupthink. On days when I feel generous and less gloomy, I think it’s usually just a tragic, complex version of “Emperor’s New Clothes.”

  3. Phil Uttley Says:

    I remember getting very angry about STFC spinning against it’s own science community back in the (also dark) days of 07/08 when the original crisis was in full swing….grrr.

    On a more positive note (for me at least), I am finding things to be hopeful about in the new undergrad funding regime. I think you hit the problem squarely on the head with this statement:

    “Call me old-fashioned, but I think universities should be funded out of general taxation. How many universities, and what courses, are different questions and I suspect I differ from the younger generation on the answers.”

    I think this is exactly the problem of any taxpayer-funded system – what do you fund, and how do you match this with the aspirations of young people? You could take the European continental approach: fund university departments on a per staff basis (i.e. pay them as civil servants), then they take in as many students as apply, but funding doesn’t really follow the student. The result of that is that as many students who want to study something can do so (with perhaps some limited entry requirements), but in order to make teaching manageable, depts can throw out half of them after the first year because they fail requirements etc. The result is that you have a rigorous system which can cope with the numbers but at a (significant) cost of not doing much to help the people who fail (who exist in large numbers). Arguably it doesn’t help to raise teaching standards much either, and could explain why so few Euro universities (barring the ultra-elitist French ones) make it to the World top 100.

    On the other hand, you can do what we do in the UK now with a mix of fees and govt funding, which is to have funding follow the student, but then you have two unwanted side effects: first there is a pressure to hang on to students (they are still in some sense customers, even if they don’t pay much in fees) even when they consistently fail, and a case can be made that they are making the wrong choice in going to uni or choosing a particular course. But also, you need a clumsy quota and cap system to set the numbers of students studying every subject in the country, and we all know how inefficient that can be.

    A system of full tuition fees will pretty much eliminate the last problem. It won’t eliminate the first, but it will mitigate it to some extent: there will be a much stronger incentive for students to get their money’s worth from a course, and strong disincentives to ‘play the system’ and stay on when it plainly isn’t worth it. However there will also be increasing problems with students demanding money back, saying they were not taught properly etc. But the biggest effect will be to drive students towards doing degrees that they really think are worth the money. In physics we tend to get the die-hards who are really into physics anyway, but it is surprising how many people choose to do a subject because they thought it ‘might be interesting’, or they ‘didn’t know what else to do’ without really having a passion for it. Now people will really need to love a subject or think it worthwhile for their career before shelling out 6-9K per annum. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

    It all boils down to this, Education is a public good but some is much more of a public good than others, and given the terrible system of centralised capping and rationing of degree places, can it be so bad to use public funds to provide the credit to students to make those decisions for themselves? In public discourse I’d like to see the arguments about fees getting into these subtleties, and about the ways that the new system might radically transform the UK (good or bad). How will it affect the numbers choosing technical professions – will it make them more respected? Will it actually lead to higher salaries for professionals (like the original fees boosted PhD stipends and postdoc and academic salaries indirectly). So far I’ve been disappointed by the black-and-white nature of the debate, and the enormous potential for ‘nudge’-type effects beyond the university sector have largely been missed.

    • phil – i completely agree. if this makes students think more about the benefits to them of a university degree – then it will have been worthwhile. ian

    • “You could take the European continental approach: fund university departments on a per staff basis (i.e. pay them as civil servants), then they take in as many students as apply, but funding doesn’t really follow the student.”

      In many countries, professors are civil servants. However, “take in as many students as apply” is not always the case. In some countries, there is a limited number per subject, and applicants are ranked and the highest ranked ones get accepted. Other countries do follow the less efficient “admit them all then fail a large fraction” approach. The only thing the latter approach has going for it is that one can argue that the playing field is level, while admission based on other criteria (such as marks in school) might not be completely objective.

  4. Phil: Small fact check correction – the highest-rated French university is Universite Pierre et Marie Curie (Sorbonne Universites) which is a public university and not part of the elitist system of “grandes ecoles.”

    • Phil Uttley Says:

      Sorry yes, I overgeneralised. It is 39th in the world in the Jiaotong, I was going off the THE rankings, but I don’t doubt that the Jiaotong ranking is just as valid.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Call me old-fashioned, but I think universities should be funded out of general taxation. How many universities, and what courses, are different questions and I suspect I differ from the younger generation on the answers.”

    I don’t even think that the answers are time-invariant. There are some subjects that the taxpayer should never be asked to subsidise such as media studies, some that they probably always should such as engineering, but some that are genuine subjects which have become debased in today’s Academy. I think of the effects of postmodernism on some traditional Arts subjects.

  6. Woken Postdoc Says:

    The gloom in the air is thick as treacle, but is there any escape from the fatalism? What survival tactics would you recommend for a serious student or postdoc? When our bosses are collapsing into despondency, what are we to do?

    I know many young and youngish scientists out here, who’ve been sacked or sunk into degraded conditions. Neither brightness nor productivity gives protection.

    We gave up our lives to the scientific calling. No family; no house; no outside hobbies; huge debts in many cases; no alternative or fallback. We’re leashed in positions of dependency — rarely daring to complain identifiably in public — even though we angrily feel we’ve been manipulated as foot-soldiers for the higher-ups. “Anger” understates the condition; I could speak for several bright youngsters who’re *paralysed* with fury. Sometimes the whole system seems passive-aggressively loaded with obstructions to our research, and blocks to promotion.

    It feels worse when we realise how the lucky surviving postdocs tend to be in the monotonous jobs in Ponzi-style mass-production science (with no hope of individual distinction). It rankles when we see certain tenured staff (not those on this blog) smugly enjoying jobs-for-life, thanks to flukes of patronage and no special merit or insight. Some of us vulnerable and betrayed postdocs & fellows have more first-author publications than those who rule over us. Some of us have mastered many more fields and techniques. Some of us (outside the job description) have assessed more research students, or delivered more lectures. We didn’t mind in the old days, when we had expectations of eventual elevation.

    Now, when is the payback coming? When will the injustice end? What positive steps can we take?

    • Experience over the past years with the funding crisis has shown that remaining silent so as not to cause controversy does not work. Coordinated lobbying, such as the positive-minded approach of Science Is Vital, does work.

      In the case of the careers crisis, it is clear that the people most affected – research fellows, postdoctoral researchers, fixed-term lecturers and postgraduates who aspire to careers in science – need to organise themselves to lobby. They need to write letters, organise petitions and lobby politicians. Campaigning can improve matters. However, the employment crisis in academic research is so severe, and so deep-seated, that any improvements cannot be on the scale required to offer career opportunities for all competent scientists who wish to continue in research. Nevertheless, improvements are possible.

    • I suspect a lot of people don’t want to rock the boat because most postdocs are very much dependent on the protection of their PI and are worried of being seen as a troublemaker…..

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