Reading Passage 3
ARE WE MANAGING TO DESTROY SCIENCE?
The government in the UK was concerned about the efficiency of research institutions and set up a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to consider what was being done in each university. The article which follows is a response to the imposition of the RAE.
In the year ahead, the UK government is due to carry out the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE ). The goal of this regular five-yearly check-up of the university sector is easy to understand: to increase productivity within public sector research. But striving for such productivity can lead to unfortunate consequences. In the case of the RAE, one risk attached to this is the creation of an overly controlling management culture that threatens the future of imaginative science.
Academic institutions are already preparing for the RAE with some anxiety—understandably so, for the financial consequences of failure are severe. Departments with a current rating of four or five (research is rated on a five point scale, with five the highest) must maintain their score or face a considerable loss of funding. Meanwhile, those with ratings of two or three are fighting for their survival.
The pressures are forcing research management onto the defensive. Common strategies for increasing academic output include grading individual researchers every year according to RAE criteria, pressurising them to publish anything regardless of quality, diverting funds from key and expensive laboratory science into areas of study such as management, and even threatening to close departments. Another strategy being readily adopted is to remove scientists who appear to be less active in research and replace them with new, probably younger, staff.
Although such measures may deliver results in the RAE, they are putting unsustainable pressure on academic staff. Particularly insidious is the pressure to publish. Put simply, RAE committees in the laboratory sciences must produce four excellent peer-reviewed publications per member of staff to meet the assessment criteria. Hence this is becoming a minimum requirement for existing members of staff, and a benchmark against which to measure new recruits.
But prolific publication does not necessarily add up to good science. Indeed, one young researcher was told in an interview for a lectureship that, although your publications are excellent, unfortunately, there are not enough of them. You should not worry so much about the quality of your publications.
In a recent letter to Nature, the publication records of ten senior academics in the area of molecular microbiology were analysed. Each of these academics is now in very senior positions in universities or research institutes, with careers spanning a total of 262 years. All have achieved considerable status and respect within the UK and worldwide. However, their early publication records would preclude them from academic posts if the present criteria were applied.
Although the quality of their work was clearly outstanding—they initiated novel and perhaps risky projects early in their careers, which have since been recognised as research of international importance— they generally produced few papers over the first ten years after completing their PhDs. Indeed, over this period, they have an average gap of 3-8 years without the publication or production of a cited paper. In one case there was a five-year gap. Although these enquiries were limited to a specific area of research, it seems that this model of career progression is widespread in all of the chemical and biological sciences.
It seems that the atmosphere surrounding the RAE may be stifling talented young researchers or driving them out of science altogether. There urgently needs to be a more considered and careful nurturing of our young scientific talent. A new member of academic staff in the chemical or biological laboratory sciences surely needs a commitment to resources over a five- to ten-year period to establish their research. Senior academics managing this situation might be well advised to demand a long-term view from the government.
Unfortunately, management seems to be pulling in the opposite direction. Academics have to deal with more students than ever and the paperwork associated with the assessment of the quality of teaching is increasing. On top of that, the salary for university lecturers starts at only £32,665 (rising to £58,048). Tenure is rare, and most contracts are offered on a temporary contract basis. With the mean starting salary for new graduates now close to £36,000, it is surprising that anybody still wants a job in academia.
It need not be like this. Dealings with the many senior research managers in the chemical and water industries at the QUESTOR Centre (Queen's University Environmental Science and Technology Research Centre) provided some insight. The overall impression is that the private sector has a much more sensible and enlightened long-term view of research priorities. Why can the universities not develop the same attitude?
All organisations need managers, yet these managers will make sure they survive even when those they manage are lost. Research management in UK universities is in danger of evolving into such an overly controlled state that it will allow little time for careful thinking and teaching, and will undermine the development of imaginative young scientists.