Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


Howyland Revisited

What is the purpose in appointing tenure-track professors to research-oriented universities on the strength of their past research achievements, but then making them apply endlessly for grants that they have almost no hope of getting? Not because their research plans are unworthy, just that there is far too little funding in the system to support them. Plus they are made to compete for funding with long established seniors, who themselves run the risk of having their research career cut short in its prime if the juniors are funded in preference. The system is inefficient and inhumane. It is also manifestly a poor use of public money. Those new appointees who fail to garner sufficient funding to sustain their research either never get tenure, or else are shunted onto other duties (admin, or an excessive teaching load) for which they were never properly trained, will never be properly rewarded or resourced, and which distract from their real lifelong ambition. The same applies to those put out to grass in mid-career.

Instead of all this I would strongly advocate a system whereby everyone appointed to an academic post would automatically get a substantial research allowance from public agencies (in most cases this would be the Academy of Finland), that would be peer-reviewed as a part of their appointment process. This would replace all of the Academy’s existing funding instruments. With periodic peer-review, say every 3 years, such grants could be doubled, then quadrupled and so on, based on performance. True stars would emerge, and would have sufficient funds to stay internationally competitive. Periodic peer-review would also decrease the funding for those who produce rather little that the scientific community finds valuable. But if such cuts were only of the order of 20% each time, those upon whom they fell would retain some support to renew their research in a new direction before it dwindled to a mere trickle. Nobody would lose their entire grant overnight. Nobody would suddenly have so much extra funding that they were unable to recruit people to implement their project properly.

Of course, there is an easy riposte to this suggestion: where is all the money supposed to come from to fund it? But I have a simple answer to this.

The number of new academic posts to be created in our universities would need to be calibrated to the available funding. If the state wants more students educated or the ones we currently take in to be better educated, it would have to choose to put in extra resources. If it can’t do so, at least the academics whom we do recruit would not be demotivated simply because they can’t get their research funded. And since they would not be wasting a huge proportion of their time applying for research funds that they have only slim chances of getting, they would have more time on their hands actually to conduct research – and improve the delivery of teaching as well. The workload of grant reviewers and panellists would also be greatly reduced – since they too are currently spending far too much time reviewing funding applications for which there is insufficient support, even if the applicants are meritorious. Result: everyone wins.

Why don’t we do this? I proposed it over a decade ago [1], but nothing has changed. Someone must have a vested interest in maintaining the rotten system currently in place, or else the change would have happened. So who or what might those vested interests be? The only answer I can come up with is both obvious but somehow unlikely: the many administrators who operate the current system would be out of a job. But they are not the ones who set the rules: they too are demotivated and under-appreciated, since most of their work consists of turning down funding requests from worthy recipients.

The real decisions on how the research funding system operates seem to come from much higher up in the food chain, from people in government or the civil service who have little real idea of what research involves. Many of them still consider it a kind of hobby undertaken by academics who are too lazy to do the teaching they were hired to do. There is also a facilitator class of senior academics who go along with all this for reasons I again cannot fathom. Are they simply scared that any change will hurt them and their institution? Or are we stuck in the present simply by inertia?

If state funding constraints mean we would have fewer research universities and more teaching-only colleges, as in the USA, that’s a price we and the state would have to pay. Entry criteria would need to become more selective, but many students and teachers might prefer an environment that wasn’t research-focused, whilst others would benefit from attending and working in research universities truly worthy of the name.

There are many other things wrong with the current research funding system, which I and others harp on about. But I believe that lack of opportunity and of continuity are a plague that is killing science not just in Finland but in many other countries. Private charities and international funders like the EU can plug a few holes in the dam. But it’s the job of the main government agencies to devise and implement a fairer and more efficient research funding system. They could do worse than follow the example of Howyland.

[1] Jacobs H. Howyland. EMBO Rep. 2013 Jun;14(6):481. doi: 10.1038/embor.2013.57

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