Ponzidemia and the academic arms race… Some musings from a burn-out victim

A perfect storm of conspiring events is closing in on science and it is likely to have some serious flow-on effects across the coming decades. To my mind, the perfect storm runs a little like this.

For many decades, societies have been seeking to advance the education of their populace — both to provide highly skilled labour to support high-tech industries, e.g., advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, electronics industries, etc., and to ‘enrich the intellectual value’ of society more broadly. Decades ago most students left high school in year 10 to pursue a trade, with ever smaller fractions going on to senior high school, undergraduate and postgraduate training. Now, vast cohorts go on to complete undergraduate studies, often being trained to levels beyond what they need for their future employment. This is a great thing, many studies have shown the benefit of educated societies, but it has unanticipated consequences…

One flow on effect is a glut of Ph.D. graduates, most of whom came through their 8-10 years of training with the sole ambition of becoming a permanently employed professional scientists. Science is not an endeavour that fits well with traditional market models — the development of knowledge is essential, but in most cases, knowledge is not a commodity that is easily monetized. The connections between a distinct discovery and a marketable product can be long, convoluted and slow to realise. As a result, society has traditionally supported science via taxpayer investment from Government — in a sense this is the ultimate in crowd-sourcing for projects that are investments in a better future for all. But the available funds are necessarily limited, and are dwindling in many modern democracies, where the realities of the ballot box have made politicians more likely to give short-sighted tax cuts and middle-class welfare to buy votes rather than long-sighted investments for the greater good.

The result is a funding pie that is not only shrinking in real terms, but that is being sliced ever more finely as it is spread across a growing cohort of scientists seeking funds. This is where the tangled web of ponzidemia, as I like to call it, has its roots.

One of the most vital resources in academia is people-power; a lab doesn’t run itself, it needs people to do experiments, collect and analyse data, fix equipment, prepare research for dissemination to the public, etc. People cost money, and this is particularly so when they have a Ph.D. under their belts, i.e., they are what we know of as ‘post-docs’. With dwindling funds though, you can’t afford post-docs any more, their salary is 3-5 times what a Ph.D. student gets paid. This provides a big incentive to a) not take postdocs any more, and b) just take on lots of Ph.D. students — it makes economic sense right? Why have 1 person who just finished a Ph.D. when you can have 3 or 5 people who are working to get one for the same price?

The universities love this also — Ph.D. students have to pay tuition and that’s an income stream, postdocs pay you nothing. So in the end, it’s a win-win situation all round, unless you’re a Ph.D. student of course, because then your life is like this… First, you get suckered into doing a Ph.D., often while you’re still too young and naive to realise that your chances of getting a tenured position nowadays are almost zero, there just aren’t enough professor positions available, and your chances of getting a post-doc even are becoming slim. Second, you spend those three years on a scholarship that, compared to any real job in science, is basically a slave wage. In many cities, these scholarships are not far above the poverty line (in real terms) and they are either supplemented by the generosity of their Ph.D. supervisor through a ‘top-up’ scholarship, money earned through casual teaching, a third job, and sometimes all of the above. Third, and in the midst of this, to maintain the ‘revolving door’ of Ph.D. intake/graduation that the universities require to satisfy government bureaucrats, you are often now required to produce the same or much more than a Ph.D. graduate did decades ago but in 3-3.5 years rather than the 4 or 5 years it used to take. Ph.D. students often work extraordinary hours (70-80 hours a week is not unusual sometimes) and take many of the crappiest jobs in the system. Their high teaching and outside work loads often mean that they are pushed out the door with a bare scraping or sub-standard Ph.D., something that gives them no chance of ever remaining in academia. The universities move them on as soon as practicable nowadays so someone else can take their place and governments can boast about how many Ph.D. trained graduates they’re producing despite their lesser quality.

An additional factor in this perfect storm is a strange anomaly in the way universities are perceived. The public mostly sees them as educational institutions, a place where we train doctors and lawyers, engineers and scientists. One would naturally think then that the best universities are where you get the best education, and this is how they are ranked, but this is not how it works at all. When it comes to rankings, the best universities are the ones with the strongest reputation for research — the most Nobel laureates and famous professors, the most papers in high profile journals like Nature & Science, the most grant income, the most exciting discoveries. In the university system, quality of education is a distant second, and in the minds of many, dead last. Indeed, often the best educations are obtained at the not so highly ranked universities. The reason is that at the best universities, the professors are often so busy engaged in the academic arms race associated with research that their teaching is mediocre at best, and often blatantly and shameless neglected (actually, many profs boast about this as though it were some research badge of honour).

To corner the student market, the universities need to be top ranked, and this means they must achieve more in research. They need this to get undergraduates to come, to provide the main revenue stream, and they need this to get postgraduates to come, to make up their slave research labour force. The universities use some fraction of their fees to supplement research incomes because of the crucial importance of research to their rankings, and as a result, their bottom lines. As they accumulate more researchers (more researchers mean more output means higher pushes in the rankings), they are furthering the slicing of the government research funds allocated. This has got to the point where, in many economies, there just isn’t enough money to support this arms race any more unless the supplements to research income using student fees can be maintained. What’s the outcome here? A push by universities in many countries to deregulate fee structures so they can charge more from students; it’s the only way to keep competing in the ranking arms race.

Another flow on effect is ever greater levels of productivity required for individual researchers to get government income to support their research — more people in the system with a shrinking pie means more competition. The key factor in this competition for research funds is number of papers in the top or ‘high-impact’ scientific journals. To the lay person this will seem fair enough — funding should go to the best science — but a second arms race combines with the first here to produce a scientific system that is becoming its own massive productivity killer.

For journals as it is for universities, reputation is king. In a perfect example of ‘what we measure is what we come to define as success’, the journals compete on the basis of a metric called impact factor.  A journal’s impact factor is the average number of citations per paper published for the two preceding years. For a journal, the key to keeping the impact factor high is not to publish a lot or have papers that get cited a lot, it’s to make sure that you focus on publishing papers that get cited a lot in the next two years. This means a) focus on sexy topics that are buzzing with work right now and b) focus on review papers as they get cited a lot on short timescales. Rankings matter to journals because it sets what they can charge in subscriptions to university libraries, and more scarily, it sets what they can charge as the article processing charge (APC) for open access papers (no, APCs are *not* set by the real costs of open access at all, they’re set by what the journal can get away with based on its prestige and impact factor, anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool). This focus on impact factor by the journals has some interesting implications.

The most obvious is that it is severely compromising and crippling an important part of science — the peer review process. The original intention of peer review was to have one or two other scientists not associated with the work read and consider it carefully. The goals were to a) check the research has been conducted within the guidelines of the scientific method and is not misleading or unscientific, b) to check that the work is clear to a typical reader, and c) provide an opportunity for constructive criticism to improve the work or check details. Funnily enough, when you submit to journals that aren’t top-level ‘high-impact’ journals this is often exactly what you get, useful constructive comments on how to make the paper better ahead of publication.

But there’s an impact factor level you reach where the character of these reviews changes quite sharply. The focus shifts instead to subjective judgements about whether the work is ‘topical’ or ‘important’ (i.e., sexy and likely to get lots of citations quickly), or whether it is ‘broad impact’ (i.e., likely to be cited by a wide demographic of researchers). The peer review reports are, 90% of the time, rejections that basically amount to why the work doesn’t deserve to be in such a high impact journal whilst barely considering the technical aspects of the science and in some cases, not commenting on it at all! It’s not that these papers are junk either; they ultimately get published in lesser journals as perfectly good science, sometimes with no revisions at all — they aren’t rejected for quality, they are rejected for prestige reasons in a contest for primacy. In fact, the worst rejections by far are the ones where the referee says the science is fine, it just doesn’t deserve that journal, as that’s when you realise how fickle and corrupted the peer review system has become.

A lay person might go, ‘well, that’s your own stupid fault, don’t aim so high’, but how can you not? Competition being such as it is, you have no choice but to bounce off these journals in the hopes of getting in, because getting one of these papers can make the difference between you getting your next research grant or getting nothing and having to fire post-docs or tell Ph.D. students they can’t finish their project any more (and I have heard of Ph.D. students who have had to abandon their degree because their supervisor can no longer finance them — they really are a labour commodity).

The result is that currently most professors have papers that bounce through several journals (I start at the top and work my way down every time – I have no choice), wasting the time of several referees at each attempt and many months of mucking around, before they find a place to finally be published. The wasted productivity here is substantial — many hundreds of thousands of person-hours a year are wasted on this cycle of submissions and frivolous rejections I’d say.

The next flow on effect is the difficulty of actually getting peer reviewers for a paper, and if you do get them, in getting high quality reviews. As a journal editor, getting reviewers is a curse and the sad reality is that a fraction of the scientific community carries the lions share of the load here. Many researchers review much more than their fair share of papers out of a sense of duty towards science, and many refuse to review at all unless they can push their personal agenda through the process. Sadly, the people who review many punish themselves in the process, because the ones who shirk their responsibilities have more time to use to get themselves ahead in publishing. The cruelty here is that whether you get grant funding or not doesn’t care at all about whether you are a good citizen in terms of your responsibilities to peer review. If anything, it rewards you for being a bad citizen, because all that really counts is high-impact publications.

Then there’s the down right ugly. Misconduct scandals, fraudulent results, cases where editors have ignored referees and published papers anyway because the citation counts are too good to miss (e.g., the Hendrik Schon incident), cases where unscrupulous referees deliberately kill papers to protect their own interests. I won’t say more about this, as I don’t want to be perceived as hanging sour grapes in this blog post; others have said more than enough about this, and many of us have been affected by it (yes, I am one of many sad innocent victims of the Schon scandal — perhaps for another blog post).

So, having dealt with hoards of keen, excited and talented young Ph.D. students whose scientific careers will likely end within years of getting their Ph.Ds, I want to touch on another emerging and disturbing effect of ponzidemia and the academic arms race — the detrimental mental health effects on early-mid career researchers in the system. If you do manage to get a post-doc, the fight to survive long enough to get a tenured position now becomes instantly and crushingly intense. Right at the time when people start thinking about a family or setting themselves up for life, they get smashed with the most extraordinary output expectations. Young researchers need to be highly productive in a topical and sexy area (otherwise you can’t get the high-impact papers that get you grants), they’re often forced to become independent before they are really ready to operate as such, they’re often teaching (for free) as they need that experience to get tenure, often lumped with responsibilities by more senior professors (who want the time to stay competitive themselves).

Pressure can be a good thing in small doses, it makes you pointed and productive, but there comes a point where it becomes destructive. It can be as minor as flagging confidence and falling productivity, but I have seen much worse also, I know many in academia who rapidly develop mental health issues (depression, violent mood swings, etc) from job stress and stupidly long hours (80+ /wk), I’ve seen some spend periods as functional addicts, and there are some who I worry won’t come in any more, and not because they found something else to do, but because they took their own lives (yes, I have lost colleagues before). These problems are descending down into the student cohort also, many of whom are obsessed with their next paper and no longer even caring about the science, or even whether things are done properly. Misconduct at student level is becoming common (and often swept under the carpet), mostly due to the pressure exerted on them to produce by a professor who is under pressure to produce — a conga line of subtle bullying that ultimately has its origin in the ranking contests of the universities themselves.

We really need to do something about this problem, if not for the human toll for the scientific toll. So many young researchers are no longer willing or able to be ambitious and creative any more. Why would you when the project that fails could mean you become uncompetitive and can’t get your next grant or next job? How can you, when the pressure is so intense that you haven’t the time or space to think about anything but getting your next paper across the line.

The solutions are probably best kept for a separate post, but at the core, I see several reforms needed in the coming years:

1. Increased funding from government, in a serious technological society, investment should be at >2.0%, currently Australia is at 1.7% and falling (numbers from Wikipedia, but if it’s good enough for Greg Hunt…).

2. A carefully thought out plan for strategic investment of science funds with a long-term perspective that’s decided outside the democratic political cycle.

3. A breaking of the reliance on Ph.D. students as a cheap labour force for research. The advanced economies should not be treating people as 3rd world citizens.

4. A division of the Ph.D. into two degrees, one with restricted intake and careful selection aimed at refilling academic demands, and one aimed at producing postgraduate trained technologists with a better focus on transferrable skills (much of what’s learned in a Ph.D. is NOT transferrable).

5. Much more efforts on behalf of universities to inform undergrad. science students of career opportunities outside academia.

6. A focus on quality for universities that goes beyond trivial metricisation and league-table games based on research output.

7. A focus on quality for academics that is less one-dimensional and focused on a wide-range of skills that include research, but also teaching, public engagement (essential for convincing the public that they need to give us 2.0%+ of GDP to spend on research in the first place), involvement in public policy, etc. The latter can be on sabbatical secondments that are treated as an equal part of the job description.

8. A focus on ambition over productivity in research — as soon as failure of projects becomes too big a risk you stifle innovation and creativity. Many will admit that you often learn more from a project that fails than one that easily succeeds (I certainly have learnt this). Science needs to be less risk-averse and failure-tolerant in many cases.

9. A better focus on providing time for creative thought and work environments where the competition is friendly not aggressive. Cut-throat competition destroys creativity, destroys collaboration and together these destroy innovation.

10. Sensible structures for workload management in academia. Almost every academic I know (including myself) is a chronic workaholic, this is not at all healthy, for us or science or society.

I think I’ll finish here. My goal is not to solve this problem, one person alone never can, my goal is simply to draw more attention to it with the hopes that eventually, enough people care enough to act together to fix it.

Philanthropists: If you can’t show us the money, show us some love…

I’ve been spending a little more time than usual following the @realscientists twitter feed this week, partly because the very entertaining @Dr_Mel_Thomson is at the helm, and partly because there’s a vicious rumour running around that I’ll be getting my turn in early July (TBC). In addition to some interesting discussions of footwear, there has been some talk about alternative funding sources that resulted in an interesting tweet:

2014-05-30_2102

 

For people working on cancer research, I’m sure @CureCancerAust helps a lot in terms of $ and c, but if I work on any of many other very interesting and important topics, one would think there’s perhaps little to offer… Or is there?

My response was:

2014-05-30_2110

Tweets were too short to elaborate at the time, and I promised a follow-up blog post, so here it is…

Yes @CureCancerAust and other philanthropic organisations, there is something you can do beyond increasing $, and that’s to help us in getting the public to appreciate not just the research you achieve through your own philanthropy, but how that research builds upon, and can only really occur, because of the underpinning basic science research that is funded by that mother-of-all crowd-sourcing schemes — the national tax system of dozens of countries around the world.

See, here’s the rub — modern medical research, be it for cancer, diabetes, alzheimers or jock itch, builds enormously on decades of government funded basic research in everything from molecular biology and chemistry to physics and mathematics. The examples are countless (feel free to add them to the comments here, folks), but let me ping just a few examples that spring immediately to my mind as a device physicist. That MRI machine you use to image tumours, well that machine has a magnet made using superconducting wires that conduct electricity with no resistance — a phenomena arising from basic physics research in the 1900s. And recent work on using tumour-binding quantum dots for cancer diagnostics — well those dots were first made by chemists playing around with the chemistry of cadmium selenide, and the understanding of their remarkable optical properties ultimately comes from fundamental studies of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s. Even more modern developments, such as new methods for electronic DNA sequencing, build on everything from basic research on how electric current flows through nanoscale holes etched into semiconductor wafers to how to do the same thing using biological pores in membranes, and then use that current to distinguish the minute size differences between the bases as DNA is threaded through the pore. This continues even today — even I’m getting involved in projects that might ultimately provide new tools for studying the microscopic dynamics of proteins, thereby opening the path to new understandings of important biological questions.

If we want to keep medical research advances going, and all indications are that the public really strongly support this, then we need to keep the basic science that underpins it going. The only way to do this is to get the public to realise that this basic science gets done in the first place and that we need them to tell their governments to support us.

Traditionally, scientists haven’t tooted their basic science trumpet that much — partly its that we’re modest and we haven’t had to, we’ve had intelligent politicians who realise our value, for example, Sir Robert Menzies, who once famously said: [1]

“One of the great blots on our modern living is the cult of false values, a repeated application of the test of money, notoriety, applause. A world in which a comedian or a beautiful half-wit on the screen can be paid fabulous sums, whilst scientific researchers and discoverers can suffer neglect and starvation, is a world which needs to have its sense of values violently set right.”

Partly, it’s because there’s also been not so much incentive  — until very recently our funding agencies and university promotion committees have valued research output much much more than they value public outreach, thus disincentivising our public engagement. And partly, it’s because modern science is deeply technical, and explaining it to an ever more attention-deficit-disordered public takes great effort, patience and skill.

We need to do it, and do it better, and things like @realscientists is a vital part of this. But we could also use some help, and this is where philanthropic funding agencies could really provide some good in-kind support . These organisations usually have a mailing list that includes donors and other people interested in their work, and they often send out newsletters and other material via these routes. Those newsletters do and should contain all the wonderful things that the research they fund, but they could also talk a little about two other things:

1. The past basic science that underpins some of those discoveries. How it works, why it was done, and how, all these years later, it became relevant to the research the organisation funds.

2. Some current basic science that it’s perhaps not crazy to think might be helpful to the kind of research that organisation might do in the future. This can be hard to pick sometimes, of course, but it matters less what’s chosen and more that its just done in the first place.

And if these are both done in adjacent pages, then people might start to get the message.

These organisations also tend to have considerable lobbying power, including influential links to politicians, people in government departments and NGOs, and, people with money who might be willing to contribute some of it to fund basic research in addition to their contributions to the organization’s more targeted research. This could of course be done by establishing a science fund through something like the Australian Academy of Science that’s open to public donations — see my earlier blog post on this topic.

So in the end, hell yes there’s something that these philanthropic organisations can do for us beyond give us money, and that’s to publically show us some love. There are plenty of outreach engaged scientists who can probably be convinced to contribute articles, particularly in this modern era where outreach is gradually becoming much more valued by funding agencies and universities, and perhaps eventually in a quantifiable way via twists on things like altmetrics. Remember, the funding agencies can control this to some extent; if you incentivise outreach by making it a condition of your funding (and universities their tenure/promotion procedures), then people will do it! Indeed, the funding agencies should really value those strong in outreach, because they can really help in bringing in the funds that in turn get distributed back out to researchers — this contribution is worth its weight in gold.

[1] “The Forgotten People“, Robert Menzies, May 22, 1942.

 

 

 

Fixing the science research $$ hole

We have a challenging problem in Australia at present, one that is likely common internationally. It is that there isn’t enough government research funding to go around. The problem is multifaceted but can be roughly rounded down into two sides of a coin:

  1. Science is becoming more expensive to do, there are more people doing it, and the intense competition combined with technological gains is driving greater productivity. This entails a higher cost usage rate per scientist than before.
  2. Conservative governments are ideologically focused on cutting government spending, and research funding can often be an easy target.

In Australia, our recent penchant for fellowship schemes brings us to a particularly dangerous crunch — fellowships are appealing to governments as they can be sold to the public as ‘creating jobs’ (something all politicians love) over other forms of research funding, and they are appealing to universities, as they enable them to buy a jump in research metrics, which improve their positions in global rankings, reputation, etc. But, they also bring the requirement for a longer term lift in project funding, because doing science costs money beyond just a fellow’s salary, and those fellows are (ideally, hopefully) likely to stick around  in traditional tenured academic positions beyond their fellowship, otherwise there’d be little point to a fellowship scheme in the first place! The sad fact is that for a politician, project funding ranks pretty low as a priority behind fellowships (= jobs, jobs, jobs) and infrastructure (= big new shiny things to be photographed in front of, ideally in a fluoro vest and a hardhat for the modern politician). This ultimately means that the commensurate cash investment needed to make a sustainable research system in terms of project funding isn’t easily achieved.

And this is where the problem has arisen here. The lift in Australian project funding hasn’t been substantive enough, and this is now causing a funding crunch that threatens the viability of research programs across all areas. It also risks seeing the fellows that the government invested in bringing here flee offshore, turning those earlier investments in fellowships into a waste. Some might argue: ‘well look at the stats, this hasn’t affected success rates at ARC has it’. No, but that depends how you want to define ‘success rate’. The ratio of grants funded to grants submitted hasn’t fallen, sure, but the ratio of funds allocated to funds requested for those that do get funding has dropped sharply — in a sense, the falling project funding is just well hidden by the system by distracting with another metric.

I was in a ‘town hall’ meeting my school had with our Dean last week, and in the Q&A at the end, raised this question: “Given the recent investment by government in fellows and the university in ‘strategic hires’, and the stagnating government project funding, there is likely a big funding crunch coming. Does the university have plans for how to ride this storm?” It was admittedly a damn tough question (one I didn’t expect an answer to), and in some ways I’m glad the Dean threw the question back at me, because I had no immediate answer for it either. What it did do was help to reinforce a largely rhetorical question aimed at getting folks to think a lot more about this problem, because we all (not just university senior management) really need to start working out how we’re going to deal with it.

The easy answer to the question above is that we should keep advocating for increases in government funding for science (and we should), but what if we can’t make the politicians give it to us, then what do we do? What are going to be our creative solutions to keeping scientific research sustainable in spite of governments that are ever more fiscally conservative, who are empowered by voters that are ever more disconnected from what scientists actually do and produce, and contain shrinking numbers of properly scientifically engaged and technically educated politicians?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit of late (hence my question in the first place), and avoiding obvious mechanisms like fee deregulation, here are a few ideas, some a little on the edge, that might kick off some wider public discussion.

Australian Science Fund: The one thing we are missing in Australia is a fund whereby the public at large can freely contribute towards wide-spread non-targeted basic scientific research. The Australian Research Council, which supports this basic purpose at present, is a purely governmental body (n.b., it should remain and it’s funding be increased). I can’t personally ‘donate’ to the ARC and they don’t seek donations either. Beyond the ARC there is really nothing similar of a charitable nature in Australia… sure, there are some fantastic charities devoted to particular causes, mostly in the medical sector, but what if, as a donor, I want to contribute to basic nanomaterials research or astrophysics or the underpinning theory of non-Abelian anyons in ultra-high mobility 2D systems? One can also donate directly to universities, but these donations often go towards buildings and scholarships and infrastructure rather than the $/c of doing actual hands-on research group science (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong about this, I don’t have budget figures…).

One possibility would be to have a shadow fund to the ARC, administered by an organisation like the Australian Academy of Science, that can take public donations and use those for a grant scheme somewhat similar to the ARC Discovery program. To maximise its benefit, this fund should not be used to ‘supplement’ anything already funded by the ARC (otherwise it just enables the bad behaviour of governments in cutting publicly funded science research) or anything already funded by some other charitable body. It can’t be used for infrastructure or fellowships (except perhaps at ECR level), it is purely there to fill the gap in project funds that get science done. The ideal case for it would be as a ‘starter scheme’, which funds small, new, short term projects towards becoming funded by other mechanisms. Or to help researchers who have excellent ideas and research track-records, but have been near misses with other funding agencies, to get their projects enough critical mass to get bigger pots of money. As such, it would be something like the old ARC small grants scheme from the late 90s.

One clever way to fund this, and potentially other special projects, would be to make a small change to the income tax form that enables tax payers to pre-allocate some percentage of their tax return towards special initiatives like this. This is successfully implemented in the Oregon state tax system in the US (see here, page 10); the only difficulty would be the competition from a sea of other initiatives clamouring for access to such a revenue stream (e.g., the operation sovereign borders fund :) ). Otherwise, it would need to run like any other charitable organization. This could be aided through tricks similar to those used by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation in the U.S. One of them is to divert some small portion of the fund towards grants to aid public understanding of science and technology — the Alfred P. Sloan foundation supports excellent media programs such as Radiolab (which I’m a huge fan of). These in turn help raise donations back to the Foundation itself, which actually invests the lion’s share of its income into scientific research grants. Organizations such as Questacon and the Sydney Observatory could also be supported by, and in return help support, a fund like this.

A key aspect is that this would have to be a single organization with enough size and solid backing to have critical mass in a country as small as Australia. Ten small versions of this, each competing against the other, would probably be a total flop — it needs the backing of a key scientific body like one of the Academies to probably be properly successful.

Fixing the publishing scam: It is hard to think of modern scientific publishing as anything other than a scam run by private publishing companies. Let’s put it bluntly in this way: Governments fund scientists to do research, those researchers then *must* as part of the academic system, give their results, for free, to scientific publishers. Those publishers then lock those results behind a paywall and charge the government, via university libraries, for access to those results they got for free in the first place. In other words, they make a fortune by taking the product of free labour from authors, free labour from referees and free labour from editors, all of whom are paid by the government, add a bit of cheap digital processing, and then sell the product back to those governments at completely disproportionate (please read as rip-off) prices.

In the old days, this was a sensible deal; printing presses and mail distribution systems were expensive, and having publishers handle that was just smart outsourcing. In the modern era it is a crazy Faustian bargain that basically results in massive profit margins for academic publishers (as high as 40%!), who simply hoover up government science funding internationally in a two-dip process. Aussie taxpayers should be particularly outraged, as much of this cash goes directly off-shore, i.e., it doesn’t even support Australian publishing houses, which have largely been killed by the impact factor wars over the past decade.

The remarkable thing here is that we don’t actually *need* the journals any more, really, everything we want to do in publishing can be achieved by sites such as arxiv.org and the establishment of mechanisms to add peer review to that process, e.g., via mechanisms like the RRR index from my last post implemented by funding agencies or novel means like publons with some added carrot and stick by funding agencies. The system just exists because it always has and there’s resistance to change, partly as scientists are largely a conservative bunch, and partly as the system has become the key weapon in the competitive ‘academic arms race’ for science funding — a stupendous number of perfectly acceptable papers get rejected from journals every day, not because they’re complete crackpot nonsense or even because of real technical issues, but because they aren’t deemed worthy of the kudos that publication in that particular journal would provide the authors in their quest for career advancement (the financial waste in this is enormous, but I’ll save it for another post).

If we want to keep the luxury of journals as they exist now,  we should at the very least stop giving the publishers of them our material and labour for free. The funding agencies should be demanding to get a significant cut of that 40% profit margin to reinvest in further research (and the authors should get a cut too — subject of another future post here).

A change like this can only happen by concerted action by a consortium of the world’s key funding agencies and universities though, because by their implicit acceptance of the arms race paradigm that  ‘a paper in Nature is worth 50 in the International Journal of Blah’, aided by endorsing monstrosities like the Nature Publishing Index, they just help perpetuate the same journal system that ruthlessly exploits them. In the end, putting a stop to the exploitation of publicly funded research by publishers is in the best interests of funding agencies and universities too — as it would not only provide funds to reinvest in research, it could also end the wasted productivity inherent in modern scientific publishing.

Fixing up IP in Australia: One story that few in Australia will have missed in recent years is the CSIRO’s patent claims regarding wi-fi technology, some of which has gone to starting a whole new research grant scheme called the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF). This was a great outcome in my opinion, innovation should help fund innovation, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no formal mechanisms for making this happen in the ARC system. Most Australian university IP rules divide any profits at something like 1/3 to the creators (staff and students), 1/3 to the university (who may or may not plough that back into research) and 1/3 to the University’s ‘innovation organisation’ (if they have one). Does any of this go directly back to the funding agencies like the ARC that put this money up in the first place? No. This also really needs to change, for similar reasons to the publishing exploitation argument above. There should be more funds like SIEF, and the government needs to take a more active role in making this happen as a return on initial funding investments, particularly on schemes like Linkage.

MOOCvertising: This is another avenue that would more be a revenue stream for universities. But one could argue that, since the real benefit of having more top researchers doing more expensive cutting edge science largely falls on them by helping their reputation and rankings, they also have some responsibility to directly fund that research. The Massively Open Online Course or MOOC is becoming a massive industry in higher education now, it brings access to markets outside the traditional ‘students attending lectures on campus’ market, and brings very significant prospects for attracting advertising revenue. Some of this could be used to fund the MOOCs themselves, some used to fund research. It’s a pretty obvious revenue stream, so I won’t say more, but one I think that hasn’t been well tapped yet.

The Church of Science: A bizarre twist on the MOOC perhaps (this wouldn’t be true Fear and Loathing without the odd off the wall suggestion), but perhaps science needs to start its own ‘church’. Now before you abandon me to head to Facebook, thinking I’ve gone batshit crazy, hear me out… What’s the charm in MOOCs? With the good ones it’s that people get to learn some science or engineering or medicine or whatever captures their interest, for free, to the interest level that they like, in a non-intimidating environment that’s free of horrible catches like exams or assessment tasks or turning up to a campus for 12 weeks. This charm extends beyond MOOCs even — little tidbits of science on YouTube attract massive public interest, particularly if they are well explained and have cool stories to them. We should not underestimate how interested in science much of the general public can be, but we also should not underestimate how easy it is to intimidate them or have them shy away from it based on insecurities (the ‘I was never very good at science in school’ problem) — if we’re going to do this, we need to do it well in a non-technical way.

In some instances the public are even engaged enough that they will turn up to open lectures, be they formal series like the Aspen Center for Physics runs or much more informal ‘science over beers’ events like Nerd Nite. I did a Nerd Nite last December and was particularly proud that they were raising money for Youth off the Streets that night, but wouldn’t it be great if we could also be raising money for research as well, say for something like an Australian Science Fund, similar to the one proposed above.

Now let’s think about churches for a second. Why do people go? A sense of community? A desire to find some way to rationalise the world they live in? Why can’t science provide this too if we can work out how to provide it in a manner that really does engage and entertain well? There are recent reports that much of the public are doubtful about key scientific facts that we scientists all take for granted, how can we ever hope to change this unless we’re talking to the public about these key ideas as much as the preachers and pastors get to talk to the public about mad ideas like creationism? Would this change if we had ‘congregations’ that came to a hall each week to hear clear explanations about things like the big bang, evolution, climate change, etc. without it being a traditional lecture course model? People donate to theology and evangelism, why wouldn’t they also donate to research and outreach in the same way?

People might write the sorts of revenues that could come in from this off as chump change, but bear with me a moment, let’s dream big. Let’s consider your average, boring university lecture to be like your neighbourhood catholic church. Boring guy gets up and prattles on once a week, makes some money — nothing special but it rakes in the money to keep churches/universities running. In some senses fun, compelling outreach activities in the ilk of Nerd nite are like little evangelistic churches — engaged audience who attend somewhat religiously and of their own free will (not by an educational system that expects them to go, like the traditional university model does), and willing to stump up cash for the experience. This is cool, but what we then need is Hillsong magnitude. Hillsong more or less started out as the Jesus version of Nerd nite, but with some proper management and careful thought on how to engage and entertain as much as they preach, they are now a large international company with annual revenues on the order of $60-70M (if you don’t believe me, see here) and the capacity to divert at least 10-20% of that to ‘benevolent causes’ beyond operating costs.

Getting back to public engagement: Doing a Hillsong version of science would be a serious challenge, probably well beyond one or even a handful of outreach-talented people, but it shows the true power of public engagement, which is something that the scientific community could do far better than it does now. Strangely enough though, if anything, such engagement is poorly incentivised (some would actually even say disincentivised) at present by the academic system. As well highlighted by Jason Ensor’s article “University metrics keep academics in their ivory towers” on the Conversation yesterday, the academic system currently rewards people mostly for producing ‘outputs’ that are completely meaningless beyond the person who made them, even to academics in slightly separated topics of the same field, let alone, heaven forbid, the general public. The universities and funding agencies bow and scrape for the folks producing strings of deeply technical Nature and Science papers, giving them their top professorships and special salary packages, but have you ever tried giving one of those Nature or Science articles to your mum, or the bloke down the local pub? They’re meaningless gobbledigook, and so its no surprise at all that the public don’t feel compelled to defend us and the funding that enables us to do what we do.

Currently, the universities are backing and rewarding the wrong people if we want to keep our public funding from government from decreasing, and convince people to donate beyond what they already do with their taxes towards scientific research. I’d be gradually taking some of these special professorships back from the ‘human publishing machines’ that have them now, and devoting up to half of them instead towards the people who are best at engaging the public and engaging the students to have an active interest in science. We need better mechanisms to support outreach and public education and engagement at universities, because otherwise our funds are going to dry up. As an example (chosen as it pops easily to mind not because it’s specific or targeted), somewhere like Sydney University shouldn’t have a half dozen Federation or Laureate Research Fellows and only one Julius Sumner Miller (outreach) Fellow in one department, the ratio should probably be closer to 50:50 if we really want the public to see value in science. To some extent this means coming up with ways to measure value outside the traditional research track, which is hard, because just counting Nature papers (or papers in general) doesn’t really do it. If anything, one wonders if publishing and bringing in grants is so well regarded by universities simply because it is just so easy to quantify and metricise and build league tables out of!

Universities and even bodies like the Academies need to become more engaged in managing the public perceptions of science too. We need to use the media better, we need to even perhaps encourage people to write fewer papers but make sure that each of those papers have more meaning, impact and significance to the public. Scientists need to get out there, show they are real people with real lives and real interests, which is really hard when you’re worked to death in the academic arms race we currently have. Twitter has been a great platform for this, particularly accounts like @realscientists. But there needs to be stronger support for this, from universities and academic bodies, not just academics who are interested enough to give up what spare time they can scrape together to do it.

Political engagement: Finally, the one last thing we need is stronger political engagement by scientists in Australia — If the system doesn’t work for you, get into the system and change it from the inside. While events like Science meets Parliament have some role to play in this, what we really need is to put more scientists into actual positions in government departments and ultimately, into public office. To put it bluntly, we need more Stephen Chu’s in this country. The one impediment to this is the current nature of the academic system whereby once you leave, it’s more or less impossible to come back in (except for Stephen Chu, who has the great fortune of a Nobel prize to his name ;) ). This is again because of the arms race system of academia whereby the only path to survival is to continuously generate high impact papers, especially in Nature journals, external funding and maintain an ever growing and high h-index. We really need to get a shift towards success being more about a diversity of achievement be it research, teaching, outreach, policy or even some mix of all if one can somehow pull it all off. We really need a system where taking a few years out to contribute to society in some other way — be it by being an advocate for science in politics or even just having a family(!) — isn’t a very likely death sentence to your academic career. If we don’t change our direct engagement in politics, then we have no legitimacy in complaints about the political system not caring enough about us, it’s really that simple.

As a last point, we could also do a much better job at preparing some of our graduates for taking their scientific training into the political sphere — there are mechanisms for this in the US, I’m not aware of any here and we need them (feel free to inform me).

Epilogue: I think I might stop here, lest I write ‘War and Peace’, but basically, while there are some good answers to how we might fix the $$ hole, none of them are even remotely easy. They are going to require some coordinated, structured and persistent efforts on behalf of the scientific community, and the implementation of some really progressive ideas for engaging the community and building new revenue streams. They’re going to require some major cultural shifts in academia too — away from the cloistered academic, who just produces complex esoteria and has no real public persona, which just enables the default media stereotype of the mad scientist or tweed-jacketed toff who speaks unintelligibly; and towards being real people who can share the excitement and importance of really complex issues and concepts in an interesting, intelligible and engaging way. We need to change and broaden the scope of our reward systems for this; we need to embrace diversity in careers and diversity in outputs.

If we don’t, the academic arms race will continue while the pot of money supporting it continues to erode, and in the end there will just be a handful of winners sharing a hollow, meaningless victory of academic ego and irrelevancy.

The Responsible Researcher Reinforcement Index

Now that I’ve finished my ARC Discovery proposal I have time to write a blog post, and Angela Moles’ tweet today made up my mind on the topic.

The tweet in question referred to an editor at a Biology journal, who went through 18 potential referees, all of whom said no to even reviewing it, before giving up in frustration and reviewing it themselves.

I find this sad and shocking, but unfortunately not surprising. I have seen this first hand, both through involvement with journals and from talking to other editors, and knowing some scientists personally (who I won’t name here) that literally boast about the fact that they referee nothing except for the one or two papers that, in all proper ethics, they shouldn’t review because they are conflicted, but do because it gives them control (and I’ve seen both positive and negative conflict here).

I have also seen people carry well more than their fair share of peer review, mostly out of responsibility and generosity and a desire to advance science over themselves.

The sad thing is, refereeing actually carries little reward beyond the warm glow some take from doing the right thing. And worse, those that dodge it actually get ahead, because we all have the same amount of time in our day — 24 hours — and those who don’t referee can spend their time on other things like writing more papers that need someone else’s peer review.

Remarkably, in my experience, some of those who referee least publish the most, and vice versa (n.b., I said some, this intrinsically means not all, ok). In this sense there is an inherent unfairness in the system. There is also the delays incurred by authors who can’t obtain timely, quality peer review, along with the frustration for editors, many of whom do their jobs pro bono.

In the modern era of worldwide online systems like Orcid and ResearcherID, I think there is an easy solution, and I call it the Responsible Researcher Reinforcement index, or RRR for short. The idea works as follows. All journals will only accept submissions from authors registered on RRR.org and who have positive RRR credit. A researcher earns that credit by reviewing papers for journals, grants for funding bodies or for editorial tasks. There are fixed credits for these tasks, but they also carry a separate quality score (could be as simple as a reddit style thumbs up or thumbs down based on a good job or an acceptable job). The database is open and searchable, a la rate my professor, so that promotion committees, funding agencies, etc can see it, and the credits are directly transferrable for papers…

So, on publishing, each paper needs two referees, right. This means each paper requires two RRR credits, which can come from any (one or two) authors on the paper. This enables Ph.D. students and ECR’s who might be RRR credit poor to be supported by more senior candidates to some extent. Need to appeal to third or fourth referee, then that’s another one or two points. Ditto goes for funding applications; you pay for your reviews in RRR credits. In this way people who use the system the most have to contribute in a commensurate fashion. Those who publish less than they review are at least publically acknowledged at RRR.org, and perhaps large credit balances can be used to offset open access fees down the line. The quality score helps to distinguish good referees and see them acknowledged in a way that’s disconnected from the exact paper/grant they reviewed. It also adds tangibility to the claims in CVs and grant applications about how much ‘regular refereeing for prestigious journals’ actually really gets done (is it one paper a year or fifty?). Note that the quality score is not determined by the authors or fund applicants receiving the review, it is decided by the editor and grant panel/manager, making it both objective and anonymous.

And this one is actually pretty easy to implement, because it’s in the best interests of all journals and all grant funding agencies, because they finally have a real carrot and a real stick to make refereeing happen in a good, timely manner. All it takes is enough cooperation to establish a site like Orcid, and a critical mass of key journals and agencies to back it. With the outrageous profit margins most journals have these days, the cost would be a small imposition.

Long term, one could even consider ‘floating’ the RRR credit, let’s call it the ₩ for convenience, like a currency. Reviewing long review papers could pay more ₩ than short papers, journals struggling for reviewers can pay more ₩ for reviews, etc. Turning this into a research currency might entail its own issues that should be considered separately and deeply, but as a basic concept, I can’t think of anything better to make the responsibility of refereeing get taken more seriously by researchers.

GENS0666 — Classification of Materials: Genres of Metal

This blog would not live up to its name if not for the occasional post like this. I promise one in twenty but guarantee nothing.

We propose a new General Studies course:

GENS0666 — Classification of Materials: Genres of Metal

This exciting course will attract a high enrolment of students from programs as diverse as computer engineering, physics, music and geology. The course is highly interdisciplinary, and worthy of cross-faculty support.

The course’s aim is to expose the students to a wide range of metals, and provide them with the ability to accurately classify diverse samples. The course will be of 13 weeks duration, involving two 90 minute lecture classes per week plus one 60 minute open discussion class. The assessment will be 10% attendance (pro rata), 40% for two assignments and 50% final exam (see assessment below)

Lecture Schedule

Week 1 – The Genesis of Metal

  • Lecture 1: The Beatles – Please Please Me
  • Lecture 2: The Rolling Stones – The Rolling Stones

Week 2 – Noble Metals

  • Lecture 3: Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy
  • Lecture 4: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon

Week 3 – Heavy Metals

  • Lecture 5: AC/DC – Back in Black
  • Lecture 6: Metallica – Master of Puppets

Week 4 – Disordered Metals

  • Lecture 7: Nirvana – Nevermind
  • Lecture 8: Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power

Week 5 – Transition Metals

  • Lecture 9: System of a Down – Toxicity
  • Lecture 10: Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R

Week 6 – Advanced Post-modern Alloys

  • Lecture 11: Temple of the Dog – Self-titled
  • Lecture 12: A Perfect Circle – Mer de Noms

Week 7 – American Funk Metal (AFM)

  • Lecture 13: Red Hot Chilli Peppers – The Uplift Mofo Party Plan
  • Lecture 14: Fishbone – The Reality of My Surroundings

Week 8 – Male Chicken Ores

  • Lecture 15: Guns’n’Roses – Appetite for Destruction
  • Lecture 16: Whitesnake – Whitesnake

Week 9 – Metals Doped for Extra Strength

  • Lecture 17: Rollins band – Weight
  • Lecture 18: The Mark of Cain – Interloper

Week 10 – Metals in Make-up and Cosmetics

  • Lecture 19: Kiss – Killers
  • Lecture 20: Crimson Glory – Transcendence

Week 11 – Toxic Metals

  • Lecture 21: Izzy Stradlin and the JuJu Hounds – Self-titled
  • Lecture 22: Metallica – Load

Week 12 – Metal at the Extremes

  • Lecture 23: Sepultura – Roots
  • Lecture 24: Gorgoroth – Ad Majorem Sathanas Gloriam

Week 13 – The Metal Industry (because there must be 13 weeks of course)

  • Lecture 25: Ministry – Psalm 69
  • Lecture 26: Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Assignments 1 and 2

You must submit one piece of primary evidence, two pieces of signed secondary evidence and a 500 word review.

Primary Evidence: Selfie that conclusively demonstrates attendance at a metal concert (Marks for reputability of concert attended).

Secondary Evidence: Two signed selfies from other students in the course, demonstrating their attendance and vouching for yours (Marks for strength and verifiability of attendance).

Review: Critical review of gig in context of history of live metal music (Marks for strength of arguments and connections to available ‘literature’).

Final Exam

50 question multiple choice quiz requiring correct identification of band and track based on 15 second sample from any song from any album in the course. Pass mark = 50%, with pass in exam required to pass the course.

The Conference Dinner Creep Attack

It’s probably the most eagerly awaited part of a conference, and if you’re female, I suspect one of the most dreaded. As a guy, it is really simple, right – put some clean, nice clothes on (hopefully, but perhaps not likely if you’re a physicist :D), turn up, have a good night, go home – probably the only awkward bit is that horrible game of musical chairs that ensues after pre-dinner drinks. You don’t have to worry about whether what you wear will bring you unwanted attention from the opposite sex. And you don’t have to worry that just being friendly and making conversation, or dancing with someone, means you’re itching to join them in bed at the end of the night, and they can sleaze you up until you do.

Sadly, for the girls, this often turns out to be the exact opposite. I’ve seen some pretty shitty behaviour lumped on women at conferences. From undue and persistent advances, even when it’s obvious there’s no interest in such, to comments about ‘getting laid’ and such that are just blatant sexual harassment (and should get you fired), to groping and hands put in inappropriate places. There are no excuses for this, and we should accept none. It happens for a mix of intent and insufficient education – some men know this is wrong and do it anyway; some are young, stupid and inadequately educated about the harm in their behaviour.

Men have a responsibility to fix this problem because it will only continue while we stand idly by. Those with intent are a separate issue (perhaps a different post), but one thing we need for the latter is to be much more engaged in setting the standards for those following us. We can change these behaviours, we just need to invest the effort into doing it.

For the most part, how we treat women comes from the influences of our fathers, be it as the example to follow, or sometimes sadly, an abusive example to anti-follow. I was fortunate in that I had a great example to follow (mostly… again, no man is perfect! But the imperfections are lessons in themselves :) ). I also grew up as the only boy with four sisters, which at least provides some empathy – it is easy to wish that my sisters would have the same opportunities I do, and thereby see how that is still not the case. Nonetheless I’m not going to claim angelic perfection. I have said and done some stupid things in my years; peers and media can be strong negative influences. Why is this? I think it is mostly that by our late teens, the influence of our fathers has eroded/saturated, and we lack good role models for acceptable behaviours.

To bring this back to academia, the only way things change is if professors (male and female) start ‘fathering’ male students by both setting the example for behaviour and having the sometimes awkward discussions that are needed to correct inappropriate behaviours when they do arise. Indeed, we need to even do this for others’ students, because in the brilliant words of Lt Gen. David Morrison, “The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.” When someone is being a creep, or even indulging in inappropriate behaviour, the only way it might change is if it is brought to their attention that it is unacceptable and should not happen again.

We have a responsibility to do this, and it is more important than papers and grants, because we can’t afford to continue pushing women out of science with our creepy, awkward and unpleasant behaviour.

Finally, to my younger male colleagues (in maturity not necessarily age), check yourselves a bit more. Think about what you do and what you say, if not before you say it, then after… sure, you can’t unsay stupid statements (I know this all too well, and certainly regret some things I’ve said in life), but you can learn not to make the same mistakes. If the next morning you regret what you said, apologise if possible, at the very least, make sure you never do it again. Always put your female colleagues off limits for anything other than the same level of interactions you’d have with your male colleagues. Do not assume that a chat or a look or a smile is a sign that you should lay down all your moves for a night of hot love; if anything, assume that this is nothing more than just being platonic friends. Put yourself in your female colleagues’ shoes; they are surrounded and outnumbered by men, they need and want to interact with you, and as colleagues not sex objects. Help them do it. If a romantic attachment is gonna happen, it will take more than one night out. Take your time and be sure the signals of mutual interest really truly are there; do not make unwarranted passes on your colleagues, and do not be laying moves for one night stands. Trust me on this, my girlfriend is also an academic, so I know from experience. This is real life, and you are not Hank Moody, no matter how much you wish you were. Keep your hands to yourselves (obvious). And do not succumb to this pick-up artist bullshit, such as in books like those by Neil Strauss (which I’ve read, so no claiming I’m uninformed on this). It’s purile and insulting and exploitative and makes you look like a desperate arsehole. If you want to learn how to be better with women, go follow Dr Nerdlove on twitter, and leave your moves for women outside your work environment unless you’re getting clear signals of interest.

Finally, treat women with respect; they certainly deserve it as much as you do (if not more given the crap they often have to deal with in our male dominated work environment). Yes, they are different but that does not ever mean they are inferior. Learn to accept and embrace the differences, put sex aside, and make yourself some female friends. Trust me, your life will be so much better for it (I love all my female friends, and in the strictly platonic sense, women make fantastic friends) and so will academia, and the world as well.

Thoughts on Future Fellowships from someone who just finished one

Been thinking of writing about this topic for some time. I figured it simply must be done after talking down the pub to someone who just received a Future Fellowship (FT) in the latest round, and I found we had very similar opinions on what’s good and what’s bad about it as a scheme. Before getting into more detail, the two points we both agreed on:

1. Anyone who already holds a continuing academic position at a university should be ineligible.

2. The FT must incorporate a mandatory teaching component at either the institution hosting the fellowship, or a nearby university if the institution is research only (e.g., a government lab or medical research institute), ideally at 0.25 FTE (1 full course per year).

Why? Well there are two reasons.

The first is that people on continuing positions don’t *need* these fellowships; but, those mid-career (or let’s say late-early-career) researchers on short contracts fighting to hang around long enough to get enough runs on the board for an academic job certainly do. The second requirement above helps them become the complete package, since it provides an enforceable opportunity and incentive to do the teaching they need to get an academic position.

The second is that by putting your continuing academic staff on fellowships like this, you actually gouge out some of the best teachers in each department and put them on the sidelines. The teaching shortfall is often filled with higher loads on other academics and greater use of casual postgraduate student teachers in many departments. Some better departments make a fixed-term replacement hire, but since there’s no start-up attached, it limits the available candidate pool, and often ends up with spots being filled internally by not so talented candidates.

The argument could of course be put “well, just because you got an FT doesn’t mean you can’t still teach”, but it’s not that simple. Firstly, the funding rules, certainly in the early stages, put very stringent contractual requirements on how little teaching could be done (this may have changed later, I haven’t checked). The level was well less than half a course, and at that point, it becomes an inconvenience administratively and a distraction educationally. Second, to be really blunt, someone on an FT would be crazy to teach more under the current rules stipulating minimal teaching. All your future research proposals become assessed with the (unrealistic) expectation that the ‘research-only opportunity afforded by the fellowship should result in very significantly increased research output’ (I’ve had such comments in recent assessments), and there’s only one way to achieve that — sink 100% of your time into achieving research outcomes by ignoring teaching, avoiding admin, ignoring outreach, etc. Having an academic at massively reduced or zero teaching load for 4 years comes with the side-effect that they are a blunt edge when they do begin teaching again — getting into the teaching groove takes a good year or so — enhancing the educational losses that an FT incurs on a department.

Another difficulty with Future Fellowships is that they come with a slush fund that is some but not all of a proper project grant. This fund is ‘one size fits all’, such that for some researchers (e.g., theorists) they don’t even know how to spend it all and for some researchers (e.g., experimenters doing expensive projects), they’re screwed unless they get a Discovery Project (DP) funded to coincide with it because it’s not remotely enough. This problem is most acute in the DECRA scheme, but I won’t digress on that here. At least the old QEII/ARF and APD fellowship schemes had the good sense to provide a DP with the fellowship so that the science could be done with a support level commensurate to the expected project costs — if the project wasn’t funded, then neither was the fellowship. This is both more effective and more fiscally responsible; if the government wants to cut waste in research funding, they’d be wise to go back to the old system of coupling Fellowships to Discovery projects as priority #1.

Continuing staff generally don’t really need fellowships, what they need is project funding; another problem with government obsession with fellowship programs is that they rob funds from those project funding schemes, i.e., DP. Some might say ‘well, that can’t be true, the success rates haven’t fallen’, sure, but the ARC force the panels to keep the success rates at fixed levels and do this by just reducing the award:request ratio on the projects that do get funded. As the award amounts fall, the first thing to go on most projects is… yep, you guessed it, the post-docs, and so what happens is this: academics buying themselves out of teaching with fellowships they don’t need chew up funds that keep people at more junior levels in a job in science. Those are the very people that the fellowships *should* actually be aimed at keeping in the system, yet the scheme as it is run now is slowly wiping them out.

So what’s the solution IMHO? Impose the two requirements I suggested at the start, then one could reduce the number of FTs awarded down to maybe 25% of the current amount. Return 50% of the savings to the DP program to support those who don’t need an FT after all, and keep the remaining 50% for a new program to fill an obvious gap in the current funding system…

What is that gap? Field transition. One of the key reasons I sought an FT was that my field was getting stale, the opportunities were drying up, so I wanted to move to something new. That takes time and money, particularly to ‘get runs on the board’ in that new area, and an FT seemed a great way to make that jump, at least at the time. My opinion now is that the four-year timeline was just too short for this. So what I’d do here is take the FT scheme as it stands and modify it as follows. The existing is 4 years at 1 FTE salary plus $50k/year. My suggestion is 1 year at 0.75 FTE (with stipulation that 6 months must be spent working in an overseas lab gaining new experience — see below), 2 years at 0.5 FTE and 1 year at 0.25 FTE; the remainder of FTE is normal academic load, ideally teaching courses related to the new field, since as anyone who has taught knows well, when you teach you learn the roots of a subject incredibly well. The following project fund amounts would be determined like in DP, but nominally, it carries ~$100k first year, ~$50k years 2 and 3, and then ~$25k for years 4-8 (using primarily the savings gained on reduced FTE). The 8 year support timeframe enables a researcher to ride the track-record weakness that happens when moving to a new field and makes high-probability of grant success less likely. With an 8 year time-frame, the field transition can be more ambitious also. The transition should be significant and make proper use of available infrastructure and international collaborations, much like in FT. The 6 month exchange should be mandatory and not negotiable (indeed additional support should be provided to enable it to happen re: researchers with families, the benefits would be well worth the cost).

Why am I so adamant about the international experience? One of the most valuable aspects of my FT was the nearly 1 year I spent working in Sweden during the 4 years of the fellowship and the 0.5 year sabbatical I took immediately beforehand. Learning the skills for a new field hands on in a lab already doing it is worth every cent a funding agency can throw at it, because it saves money (and time, which is money), wasted fumbling around at home. In a sense, this is exactly how we learned our new fields when we were Ph.D. students; we can all do it again, and as experienced researchers we can do it even more effectively and more rapidly too. It’s also a great experience for the students in the lab you visit.

Ultimately, Future Fellowships were a positive and certainly better than nothing at all, so I heartily applaud the Rudd government for doing this and supporting Australian research efforts in the process, but with the benefit of hindsight, there are lots of things that can be improved for future implementations of such schemes so they bring even more benefits to the productivity of Australian research.