Accountability

Every time I fly home from one of ‘these conferences’ I stare out the window wondering how the hell this keeps happening… that bad taste in the mouth from yet another program lacking in diversity and novelty. While this week’s conference wasn’t guilty of the most heinous and thoroughly discouraged practice, namely an all-male plenary line-up, it had a number of things that really make me question why I even registered. Where do I begin?

The most festering sore…the panels. Oh my god, what an epic fail. On the Sunday there’s a ‘what makes a great leader’ panel, two men & one woman, and then, as if leadership is something women need extra education on perhaps (I’m still trying to work out what the actual underlying message was), there’s a ‘women in leadership’ panel, all woman panel & chair, on the Tuesday. Got to love the token ‘women’s issues’ panel, especially after so many iterations, just to absolve yourself of your other sins … and man, where there sins!

On the program for Wednesday was an all-male panel on how to get your first job. Oh, the irony of three senior male academics at the top of the ponzi talking to an audience where most have buckley’s of getting a similar shot at being an ‘academic for life’. And the pièce de résistance, a 6-person panel on academic-industry relationships, all male including the chair.

Some of you will have read my prior blog post on minimum standards for conferences. I got ambushed on this one. I had already registered, the conference having met threshold on speakers at my 2020 standard, only to see those panels and want my money back. I stupidly walked into a mistake I pointed out on twitter last year – paying your registration to conferences with bad practices is simply enabling them financially. So, I felt duty bound to make a stand on this one to redeem myself.

It began about a month ago when the organisers spammed an advertisement about the panels to the conference email list. I sent an email to two of the chairs that I knew personally, one of whom I’ve raised this issue with several times before, telling them in no uncertain terms how bad a message this sends to people in your audience, and offering to assist with suggestions to remedy the situation.

I never even got a reply.

I arrived at the conference, the updated program on the app, still the same panels.

OK, time to step it up then, so I decided to lob a grenade at the ‘women in leadership’ panel. I can’t remember my exact wording, something along the lines of “This may be a controversial question, but one can’t help but notice that the next two panels at the conference are all-male panels, including one with 6 men on academic-industry partnerships, a topic I think any of you would be very qualified to talk about. Clearly, we are well beyond awareness on this issue, what do we start doing to stop this from happening?

Amanda Ellis gave a really good answer to this, something like “It is time for men to step up and do something about this because women can only do so much. Start refusing to be on biased panels, start making it clear to organisers that this is not ok.” I think this is some of the solution, let me come back to it below, but where did things go after this…

Wednesday’s panel arrived, now there’s three men and one woman. Ok, we’ve gone from manel to token, but it’s better than nothing. Not exactly what Amanda was suggesting, and I would have much more respect had one of those three panelists actually made the sacrifice to lead by example and clear a chair to get to 33% rather than just 25%. Optics matter, particularly in leadership.

Thursday’s panel was a howler, and a good example of why last minute fixes are shit for everyone. The 6-man panel had gone to 6 men and 2 women, who had clearly been dragged into this in a hurry. Why do I say clearly? Well, each panel member got to introduce themselves, the men all had a stack of curated slides, something of a mini-talk so to speak. The two women had no slides at all, and got to be the last two to introduce themselves. As if it wasn’t obvious enough that they were an after-thought from program and seating layout. The arrangement and chairing of this panel can only be described as woeful (I am being diplomatic). The panel had 40 minutes available, and 35 minutes were consumed by the ‘introductions’, the last two shorter than most, such that there was barely 5 minutes left for discussion. Two questions were put forth, one was barely answered, the other never even got that. And that folks, was it. I felt pretty shit after this, all I seem to have achieved by calling the conference manels out was to put two of my female colleagues into the shit-sandwich of being pressured at the last minute to give their best performance in a shemozzle that was little more than an insulting waste of their time (I sincerely apologise to them both on behalf of people who should have done a better job so that this never had to happen).

An interesting question is: Does this have any blowback against the organiser of that panel or of the other panels? How about the conference chairs? After all, the chairs have a leadership and oversight role and therefore a responsibility to ensure quality, equity and diversity in their program. Of course not. We all go home, some of us pretty disappointed at the whole thing. They put their contribution as a line in their CV, get positive credit for it (accumulate merit-cookie), and move onto the next conference. Where it all happens again, and again, and again.

This experience, and Amanda’s answer, got me thinking. Surely this isn’t down entirely to men being invited onto panels to take a stand. Sure, that’s some of it, I 100% agree, but that cannot be all of it. What we need here is some mechanisms for accountability for the organisation of these conferences.

There’s limits to what you can do. Conference series are somewhat independent structures; you can’t act punitively on them easily. The chairs are also hard to exert pressure on. They’re not going to own up in their CV to “Chair of Conference X, which by the way, was a total sausagefest.” or “Chair of panel on Y, which descended into farce because I can’t manage a piss up in a brewery”. Neither can you exert pressure via, e.g.,  funding schemes, for example, simply because these things aren’t really the criteria, and taking out your grudge that way is just unethical.

So how the hell do we do it? I can see a few mechanisms here.

The first would be via Athena Swan awards. One possibility here would be to have every conference and its outcomes tied to the conference chair’s own organisation’s Athena Swan measures. If there are co-chairs, then this would be divided equally between the co-chairs’ organisations. Since this has an impact on something a university cares about in terms of PR, this would mean that university’s DVC Equity & Diversity can lean hard on the conference chair. This could include rescinding financial support, since those often do come from the home university of the conference chair, but also extend to punitive measures directly on the chair from a HR perspective, e.g., for damaging university reputation. After all, this conference I was at had a hell of a lot of University of Queensland branding floating around, and I will forever associate UQ with that conference. I doubt the top folks at UQ would like to be hearing me say that (esp. since I once almost became academic staff there). This Athena Swan approach could be both a stick and a carrot – particularly good conferences should be able to advance a campuses Athena Swan measures as much as the bad conferences hurt them. And there could be financial rewards for staff for doing so!

The second would be to start advocating for conference sponsors to make demands of the conferences they sponsor. A good route to achieving this would be to start publicly asking the sponsors why they are supporting and enabling the most egregious cases whilst showing gratitude for supporting positive action. Sponsors will be more even responsive to negative PR than the universities; they sponsor entirely for marketing reasons and there PR really matters. We could start by encouraging sponsors to write minimum equity standards into their sponsorship contracts, for example. It’s good for these businesses because better diversity of speakers and panels means larger more engaged audiences, and increased customer base to interact with.

The third would be for delegates to become more savvy (myself included after this experience). What I learned this time around is that early-bird registration is perhaps not the best option. Sure, it saves some money (in this case about 14%). But that’s peanuts compared to going to a conference that disappoints you the entire time and sends you home feeling annoyed or uninspired. I would happily pay the $160 early-bird gap out of my own pocket to undo my decision to attend knowing what I was getting into. By delaying registration, you have more pressure over the committee. They take your emails more seriously if you say ‘if you don’t fix this, I just won’t register’. After all, nothing makes a conference committee panic like low registrations. There’s significant ‘upfront’ in any conference budget, and most of the savings given to early-bird registration are really a ‘certainty cost’ to the conference budget.

The fourth would be for delegates to be more discriminating. There are a lot of conferences on the market, more than we can ever obtain grant money to attend. They can also be expensive – registration is regularly at the $1k+ level now. And that’s before you include travel and accommodation. If all that’s going to happen is you are going to see the same old plenary speakers over and over again, or be subjected to monocultured panels, or be in a program so disorganised that it might as well have been put together Nostradamus style (throw the abstracts down the stairs, pick them up, and that’s the talk order) then why waste the money? If there’s only going to be 13 disinterested people, half of them looking at their phones, during your talk then why spend the $1k at all? Your talk opportunity is compromised by the lack of audience, and your listening opportunity is compromised by having to hear the same old plenaries again and again.

There’s always better opportunities, right?

This is particularly the case for the big ‘meritocracy & showcase’ conferences, which are more often than not totally soul-destroying experiences that I end up wishing I had never attended (MRS Fall is the only exception). Especially when you never have much hope of ever getting a major talk because the same old people keep being given the slots ‘because it’s meritocracy, stupid’. This conference included at least 3 plenaries that I had already seen more than twice in 5 years. One is even now at: seen twice, skipped 3 times, and one time attended but listening to Amon Amarth on my AirPods just for some giggles as I was there for the next speaker, who I’d also seen before but wanted to see their two new slides. In another upcoming major conference, the same Nobel laureate has spoken at it every single time I’ve ever gone since I was a Ph.D. student, the talk is always much the same. We’ve often joked that when he dies, they’ll wheel him out, Weekend at Bernie’s style, stiff with merit, just to watch decay for 45 minutes and bask in his meritious glory. Meanwhile, you go to a standard session, and you see some really cool stuff crammed desperately into contributed slots, it would make a great plenary, but no one on the committee has the imagination and the meritocrats at the top would never give them the chance. Especially when committees are using plenary slots to buy influence.

Feeding off this, the fifth would be to start looking for ways to be visible that don’t include the conference circuit. After all, in a carbon constrained world, we’re going to need to stop going to so many conferences (at least until we’ve decarbonised our transport options). The one positive I saw in this conference was that some plenary speakers didn’t come but delivered their talks by Zoom. The quality was just as good as in person, if anything, in the giant theatre you could actually see them without needing binoculars. Why can’t we watch talks in our own time without conferences? Why can’t an academic website host your ‘plenary talk’ for people interested to see at any time? You don’t need conferences to give you a platform, the internet is your platform.

I’ve hit my word limit, so I might stop there and leave this for discussion in the comments? What other clever ways can we end these bad conferences? Feel free to make some suggestions.

Zen and the Art of Academic Mind Maintenance

Academic life is extremely busy, and gets soul-crushingly more so each year as the ruling clown show attempts to wring every last microdrop of blood from the stone to prevent the ultimate collapse of ponzidemia. It’s easy to think about little else in the desperate rush to keep your head above water and survive the surging torrent of endless work. But sudden tragedy has an interesting way of ripping your attention away…

Life also has an interesting sense of humour on the timing of events. One week you’re paddling hard as usual, happy to have survived the rapids of the teaching term for the calmer waters of a well overdue sabbatical. On the weekend you get a 8am phone call that no academic ever wants — a student you are close to has taken their own life — and then less than a ridiculously busy & traumatic fortnight later, you find yourself alone and relatively unloaded in a new country for six months… no friends, partner still working back at home, a huge language barrier and a shoebox apartment living out of two suitcases, with endless hours to think about your predicament. Watching from afar, as everything back home finds its way back towards equilibrium without you. Powerless, isolated, invisible.

If there’s any good to come from this, it’s that it somewhat forcefully presents the opportunity to ask yourself some really tough questions, and then to think very deeply about them. And being in Japan, a country with strong Buddhist traditions, this is well facilitated — there are places and rituals perfectly designed for deep mental explorations, be it sitting silently in some ancient temple or a solo hike through mountainous jungle in the near 100% humidity of August, sweating bullets and trying to stave off heatstroke, snakes and hornets.

Six months of meditations is too much for a blog post, so let me hit my top three. Maybe they’re pointless drivel, maybe they’re obvious and I just woke up, maybe they change the way you see things too. No particular order.

1. Talk is noise only the actions matter: 99% of those who read this will have done so via social media. Social media should have been a blessing. It has become an utter curse. I became so horrified with what it had become, and how it made me feel and act, that I deactivated & burned my twitter account, by that point aptly named 死亡フラグ, deleted facebook from every device I owned and only used instagram to share my best Japan photos and Messenger to keep contact with non-work friends and family for several months. I also ignored all news sources except the Japan times, which I only used to keep up with local big events (e.g., typhoon warnings, sumo results, etc).

It was fantastic, I immediately felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, particularly on burning my twitter account. The ‘crack addict’ impulsive phone checking was gone within days. I was once again aware of the world around me, in a good way. Even today I solidly think about never going back to twitter, having missed only the occasional contact with a few new friends I made via my time there.

But as an interesting experiment, I phoenixed my account just before getting home, and set myself the rule of no tweeting, just observation only, for several weeks. Essentially, it was a sort of ‘twitter meditation’, where I let the tweets just pop up, observed them dispassionately, and let them disappear again, without interacting. I just asked myself at the end of short sessions looking at it: What do you see in all these 280 character chunks?

You know what I noticed almost immediately: 99.99% of what you see on social media is pointless irrelevant bullshit. Toxic crap. Brain farts that shouldn’t exist outside the brain that farted them. People hurling outrage and abuse at each other, flipping out at the slightest perceived infraction, jumping totally off the deep end. The outrage floats in this endless sea of irrelevance, tweets that only exist to seek validation from a public that doesn’t even care, as though we lived in a universe where anything not tweeted (and not liked or retweeted) simply doesn’t exist, or worse, makes you a loser or a nobody. It’s the electronic equivalent of a septic tank, where we all contribute our mental excrement several times a day.

Another thing you notice quickly is what I’ve come to call ‘virtual signalling’ (as you can probably tell, I enjoy coming up with new terms). It’s the same ‘virtue signalling’ we normally think of — whether you consider that good leadership or an insult is irrelevant — except that there’s no real action tied to it at all. It’s just a glib statement of desired behaviour, a virtuality rather than an actuality. You see it a lot in academic accounts, and anywhere there’s an easy perception that if you aren’t ‘lefty enough’ you will get shunned by the community (I don’t believe left and right have relevance any more, but I won’t digress, the usage I just made is clear enough). I won’t give specific examples, lest I have them pinned as me firing arrows at specific targets, but let’s just say, it’s interesting to notice the dissonance between the tweets and actions of some you know both as tweeters and in real life. It’s not everyone, but it’s enough that you notice.

Indeed, the whole merry-go-round of twitter, LinkedIn, facebook, etc is interesting when you really step back from it for a while having been deep inside it. It really reinforces that classic old chestnut: “Talk is cheap, actions are expensive.” The big lesson in all this, maybe we all need to say a lot less and start doing a lot more. Be the change you want to see in the world. If you are being it, then you don’t need to talk about it because it’s happening. And people see actions, and talk about them — if others are talking, then you don’t have to say so much. On the flip-side, if you have to make a lot of noise, maybe it’s because the action isn’t there.

This isn’t to say that only the silent do anything, or that anyone on twitter is all pointless words and no action, or that talking about action nullifies action — one side effect of twitter is learning to figure out the worst misconstruction of anything you say and how it can then be used to clobber you over the head. But if you’re an academic on twitter, I can highly recommend taking a few weeks of silence to dispassionately look at the flowing river of toxic shit spewing forth and what your contribution to it is. How does it make you look? How does it make you feel? How can you do better? And I don’t mean tweet better, I mean DO better, in your actions. We can all do better, myself included.

2. Worry more about your substance than your achievements: One thing that’s always disturbed me about academia is how easy it is to lose the person for the achievements. There’s two sides to this coin. The first is frequently highlighted in a ‘meritocratic’ context. An often used example being someone with questionable behaviour, e.g., wandering hands, being endlessly excused because their achievements are so great that they outweigh (for some) the bad behaviour. I’ve always been amused when you hear all about Scientist X and their amazing achievements from a colleague, and you ask ‘yeah, but are they a good person?’ and get weird looks or blank stares in return. As though that’s a completely stupid/pointless question to ask. Or worse, find out they are human trash somehow excused by academic brilliance.

The second is perhaps less commonly pointed out. It’s easy to become so desperate to survive a system that cares only about maximising a certain set of achievements that you can easily lose yourself as a person, or worse, follow dark paths in trying to satisfy them. The system builds a ‘win at all costs’ approach (the dreaded meritocracy again), that soon sees you, e.g., sandpapering a cricket ball to get the edge that wins the match, or turning a blind eye to such… Humility, generosity, honesty & fair dealings can all fall so easily to the wayside, only to be replaced with sniping, gossip, mafia tactics, backstabbing, dishonest promises, etc. All justified by just being ‘what you had to do to survive’. Is survival really worth it if this is what you have to do?

Tragedy is a good catalyst for escaping the meritocratic mental merry-go-around… Nothing switches your mind away from metrics like being harshly reminded of mortality. What’s the point of having a life if you don’t enjoy it; if you just spend it all chasing achievements to help managers with over-commitment issues achieve overpromised KPIs or to impress merit-obsessed colleagues you don’t even like?

All the little quibbles and pointless tasks and chasings to pad out CVs really pale into insignificance. The stuff that really matters becomes a bit more crystal clear — the good people around you, the people you work to serve, i.e., the students and the general public, your kids or family or friends or hobbies. It all starts to matter more than the utterly pointless and unending quest to just push up university league tables.

Probably the biggest question you dwell on is: If I died tomorrow, what would people say about me? I don’t know about the rest of you, but a eulogy full of academic achievements would, for my eyes, be a damning insult. I wrote 300 papers or gave 27 million plenary talks, who cares. I managed to better understand Phenomena X or won Prize Y, so what. I’d much prefer to think my colleagues thought I was a mostly decent guy (no one ever is perfect) who was sometimes fun to be around, that my undergrads enjoyed my teaching and thought I gave my best to teaching them difficult stuff, that the folks who worked in my research group enjoyed being there and had a good environment to work in that enabled them to achieve their best without destroying themselves. Nothing in the metrics points to this — you can have insanely good metrics and be terrible at all these things, you can have rotten metrics and be thought of highly!

None of us are perfect, I’m a jerk and an arsehole too sometimes, this isn’t a demand for perfection. It’s really just a quest to not forget the value of the things that cannot be easily quantified in workplace environments. A focus on Quality, not in the usual corporate bullshit sense or the word, but rather in the sense talked about by Robert Pirsig in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Richard Buckland put me onto this book, I highly recommend it as a read for all academics too).

As we head towards the inevitable collapse of the academic system (see below), at the very least we have passed it’s golden days, I think one of my favorite sayings in academia rings more true than ever:

“Everybody in this game is smart, hardworking and good at what they do; distinguish yourself by being kind.”

3. Death exists for a reason but we now need organizations rather than people to die: Imagine people didn’t die — angry male boomers would be the least of our problems, Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler would be kicking up real storms. Death exists as a necessity to evolution. The way we advance is with the old being replaced by the new. Typewriters and trilobites, both left in the past for newer things.

What’s interesting is how easily and suddenly people die, even when they shouldn’t, but organizations that are obviously stuck in the past and should have died long ago are somehow, not just still with us, but as protected and powerful as ever.

I love Japan, there are lots of positives to that country. But one downside that totally blew my mind was the bureaucracy, which is literally stuck in the 1980s. Outsiders and tourists imagine/see Japan as a very modern country, a producer of much technology. They produce it, sure… but in lots of places, they just don’t use it. At all. So if you live there for a bit, you have to go register your address, join the health system and pension system, open a bank account. I don’t know about everyone else, but this process is eye opening and somewhere between amazing, ridiculous and horrifying (perhaps all three in some acid-fueled kaleidoscopic sequence). Large staffed offices await, with floors full of photocopiers and file shelves. Address details are stored on paper sheets in lever-arch folders, found by consulting maps on paper in lever-arch folders. Forms are filled out on paper, photocopied and filed. Banking is done using bank books (I haven’t had one since I was a ‘dollarmite’ aged 9), which you can put into an ATM to have the transactions printed on it (that lovely sound of line-scanning mechanical printers leaking out of the machine). When you head home, they can see your final health insurance payment in the computer system, it says so right there on the screen but… the stamped paper bill stub isn’t in the file folder because the konbini hasn’t sent it yet, so back home you go to get your stamped paper receipt to prove the payment. Everything is in cash, including when you have to be paid some expenses for giving a talk at a university, whereupon you can have the great (and weird and funny) experience of being quietly handed an ‘envelope stuffed with cash’. I could go on, but that’s enough to get the point… This thing is obviously not sustainable. The question isn’t if it will go, it has to, it’s just how long conservatism can sustain it before it dies, and how spectacular that death is.

It’s staggering, and when you see it, it really makes you think in a different way about how organisations can be completely resistant to change and at the same time, somehow stave off dying.

Which brings me back to academia, which is a close rival to the Japanese bureaucracy for the thing in most dire need of total disruptive revolution. I dealt with scientific societies in my previous post, many of these dinosaur-closets are in dire need of an end.

There’s the journals. In return for insane profit margins, we give them our work, labor and mental anguish (as they endlessly stuff us around in the reject-reformat-resubmit dance) for free. The system needlessly slows down our advances — if I could reclaim the time lost to stuffing around with journals, I’d easily be 50% more productive — to the point where any organization not in the journal space, e.g., start-ups, can easily outpace us on competing work. The only reason we’re wedded to this system is the conservatism of the scientific meritocracy — we don’t need these journals to publish, we could do that with ArXiv. We use the journal system as an initial proxy to arbitrate quality so we can run the meritocracy that underpins the league tables. The league tables protect the publishing companies, the publishing companies protect the league tables. And it’s why we spend forever going around in circles trying to get anything published these days. You have to pitch at the top journals to survive meritocracy, and they have to reject you as part of the meritocracy that enables them to survive. Welcome to the Hotel California — “We are all just prisoners here of our own device”

There’s the conferences, a few are good, most are the same tired old format, with the same old blokes giving the same old plenary talks over and over and a bunch of showcasing. It isn’t long before you’ve heard it all before. Physics Today once famously noted that the obituaries was one of the most popular parts of their magazine, mostly for the young rejoicing in the fact that a slot has opened now that yet another dinosaur is gone — the irony of it being adjacent to the academic position openings section was not to be missed!

There’s the funding agencies, with their ever growing form requirements and ever growing justifications of this and that just to compete for a diminishing pool that’s salami sliced ever thinner, unable to keep up with a growing hoard of applicants. And then you look at the awardees — so many instances of the same CIs with the same essential title and the same essential project description that got funded 3 years ago and 6 years ago and 9 years ago and 12 years ago… I’d love to join a project to mine the ARC database for some choice examples of the same essential project being funded again and again for well over a decade, as I know quite a few examples where the outcome promised a decade ago still hasn’t been achieved, and likely won’t be come 2030 either, yet still be sold as a fundable proposal! The instance where CI X has new co-CIs and is doing something very different to 5 or 10 years ago is comparably rare — probably a sign that there’s success to be had in simply not evolving in academia. The sort of topic and field jumps that you see people make in private sector research are basically impossible in the academic system, you’d be instablocked on track-record grounds.

There’s the universities. Now just slaves to gaming the international league tables as their sole reason to exist. The league tables trump everything, it’s all just a game to wring more out of the same old machine, even at the expense of the tangible core outcomes, just to be able to wave about a jump of a few places in Ranking Table X in your PR. Everything becomes about the numbers, the substance be damned. It’s like taking Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, calculating the fractal dimension, burning the canvas to ash, putting the number up on the wall of the National Gallery in neon lights, and expecting the public to still come and be engaged with the art. Does anyone really think that SpaceX, or Cochlear, or Vestas care as much about where they are on similar league tables, e.g., who’s the biggest company, to the point where it drives the entire executive strategy? Does anyone really think Ibanez would alienate all their customers by focusing solely on 7 string basses, just so they can be the company producing the basses with the highest number of strings? But, recklessly compressing your teaching program, all the while putting your students under greater stress than ever, driving them off your campus and out of your enrollments, just to jump a few spots higher on some pointless table? Totally cool and normal. Top academic leadership. Education be damned, right, the money still comes in as they can’t get a job without a degree… as long as we’re the number one choice in ponzidemia. How long before businesses see university degrees as disruptable because students can’t learn what they need due to how university programs are structured, and just hire kids without degrees and train them in house. If universities just stay focused on this pointless pissing contest, that disruption may not be so far away.

The whole business of academia seems endlessly stuck in the past. Managed by folks who’ve never done anything but be in academia. Chosen to be managers by managers stuck in the same rigid thinking simply because they’re correctly stuck in the same rigid thinking (the ‘safe pair of hands’ problem). After all, once you’re in, there’s no incentive to leave academia, simply because you know 100% there’s absolutely no way you would ever be allowed back in the door. Welcome to the Hotel California — “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.”

One thing’s for sure, something’s got to give… eventually. We have a system that’s stuck in the past, with leadership that cannot see past a) doing what we always do, and b) tightening any screw they can to milk more out for league table supremacy without violating a). All with severe constraints coming at decadal scale. There is no creative leadership on the sustainability of the business — it’s simply keep the accelerator to the floor and hope the car doesn’t run out of fuel or crash. Government funding is declining, yet every DVC-R at every campus claims they are going to grow their share of government research income. They can’t all be right. We do a terrible job of convincing the public we are important, meaning that funding pool will keep declining for the foreseeable future. We’re generating oversupplies of graduates, who then can’t get jobs but are stuck with massive debt; there’s an adverse feedback loop coming on this I’m sure. Even postdocs are almost unaffordable now. International markets are shifting quite strongly, such that traditional supply streams may soon run dry. Yet, every DVC-A at every campus claims they are going to grow their share of enrollments, both local and international. They can’t all be right either. Ponzidemia has to collapse at some point, I just can’t work out where it fails first. One of the many fantasies propping this system up is gonna be the straw that breaks the donkey’s back. But which one is it? When it all lets go, which is the campus that dies first? Because companies collapse, and now that universities are essentially companies (future post), the time has to be coming that universities collapse too. I’m still waiting to hear of a single person in the academic leadership system that doesn’t have their head buried in the sand on this.

And if you think I’m looking too hard for a problem here, take a look at modern politics. Similar issues. The organisations have forgotten their core business for different masters, they’re run by people who’ve never done other things, many have been ‘political class’ since they joined undergrad student politics, the bases are angry and unsatisfied and feeling ignored and demanding change. The right change agent just needs to come along… maybe it’s the same for academia.

Scientific Societies — The standard you walk past is the standard you accept… start demanding better.

Scientific societies… for any young researcher they’re a part of the scientific landscape that you cannot avoid stumbling upon before getting far into your career. A few are good, and serve very useful purpose in connecting communities. Many are mediocre, poorly managed relics of a bygone era trying to stay alive in a modernising world. Some are downright rotten, and little more than old boy mafias designed to protect and advance the interests of the few at the expense of the many. Across the board, they are good at luring in new members to grow and advance. It is easy to feel flattered by their interest in your engagement with them, and to imagine them as another ladder to your advancement…

… as someone who, like many, has fallen into the honeytrap, it can be interesting later on to look back at what you’ve seen. At what gave you true value. At what was so unbelievably cringeworthy that it made you wonder how such a thing can ethically exist at all! Of the many societies I’ve joined there are very few I still remain in, and even those I do, I question staying, less in terms of ethics and more in terms of value to a member against money spent. There are some I saw real value in, some I’ve left as I didn’t see the value prospect, and there are others that, could I burn them to the ground and piss on the ashes, I would do so in a heartbeat.

Most of my writings on this blog are aimed at giving those who follow me some useful wisdoms that I wished had been passed down to me to save me some grief. And so for those new to the great Ponzi scheme of academia, I want to give you some things to look for when choosing which societies to invest your money and effort in and which should be left to go the way of the dinosaurs that run them.

To keep it short, let me get to bullet points…

  1. Is the organisation democratic? How is the leadership decided? Is it elected? Is it appointed? Do people come in, do their term, hand over and move on? Or is it the same names rotating around a circle of positions, perhaps even keeping the same position for decades? When candidates are put up for election, are they all just old white blokes from ‘Sandstone/Ivy league’ institutions, or is there some proper diversity of representation?
  2. Is the organisation transparent? How well can the members see inside the goings on of the management of the organisation? Is there an AGM? Are minutes published? Are the budget sheets well accounted for? Can you see what the outgoings vs the incomings are and how they provide you value? If you talk to the leadership, do they care about your interests and opinions, or do they just talk down to you or ignore you completely as you aren’t very important (after you’ve paid your dues of course). Very few professional organisations are even remotely transparent on this; for some, the only transparency comes by accident from their complete incompetence at InfoSec. Don’t be afraid to do your homework!
  3. What they hell do they actually do that provides you value? Professional societies do lots of things. Hold conferences (like we need more of them), manage journals (like we need more of them), give out awards (like we need more of them). Some exist almost entirely as lobbying organisations. Some are businesses aiming to make a profit off conferences and journals. How much is the membership fee? What do *you personally* gain from that membership fee? Or is it someone else’s gain? Or is it sitting in a bank account as ‘assets’ that you aren’t even aware exist? Imagine the organisation collapsed, who would get those assets? Where would they go? Would they be divided and refunded to members?
  4. How much do they advance diversity and progress in the field? Are their conferences endlessly filled with all male plenary and keynote line-ups, with the same old blokes talking meeting after meeting? With insulting sessions on why women and minorities don’t remain in the field despite their obviously exclusionist policies? Or do they actually put real effort into exposing the community to new and different people with new and different ideas? To embracing diversity. To what extent are the prizes just going to people already in the organisational leadership through a closed opaque process, or are they given to people with no prior connection through fair and properly transparent nomination processes with well publicised guidelines and outcome statistics? How much correlation is there between past awardees of any award from the organisation and people who have been in leadership positions in that organisation at some time (past or present)? Are their journals diverse, or just a vehicle for an easy publishing ride for members of the club?
  5. Is the advocacy of the organisation really for everyone, or is this about advancing the interests of the inner sanctum first? This can be hard to tease out without getting close enough to see how the interactions really work. This last point is perhaps less a criterion to join and more a criterion to decide to jump overboard with your cash/time and start swimming for new shores.

Ultimately, the list above, and some recent pieces of satire — Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 —  are designed to make you all think a little bit more about whether the professional organisation you intend to join is something you should join, or whether the one you’re in is one you should stay in.

The latter is an important point — staying with a dodgy professional organisation is actually doing yourself and your field a dis-service. In the words of Lt. Gen. David Morrison “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” By providing your hard earned salary in membership fees, or research grant monies in conference registration or publishing fees, to dodgy professional organisations, you are essentially implicitly endorsing and supporting those activities. You can say whatever you want, money talks, your actions are incongruent, and you are advancing bad interests.

Do your homework in advance. Once you’re in, don’t be afraid to walk away from these things if they aren’t serving your interests. Me personally, I’m currently down to only two professional organisations, and I’m currently questioning both (less in terms of morals, more in terms of value).

Don’t be afraid to let some of these organisations actually die. Death is part of evolution, it’s why we no longer have to worry about being eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. Also, don’t be afraid to start your own organisations… Remember, all of these organisations started somewhere, often from small groups of young people keen on making change. If you do this, avoid the established societies like the plague (see Part 1). You don’t need them. They will only seek to usurp you into their interests. Stay fiercely independent.

As for me, now that I’ve spent a week ‘sucking out the venom’ from my years of pain with professional organisations (not all bad, some really do make great contributions, and those contributions should be visible and the management transparent and humble), it’s time to focus on other things…

/A

Dealing with Referees at journals

This post follows an interesting recent job as an adjudicating editor for a paper that underwent two rounds of review, was rejected and sent back under appeal. The first round was: reconsider and submit elsewhere. The second round was: submit elsewhere, accept and submit elsewhere. This scenario is most authors’ worst nightmare: almost there but not quite. The appeal was textbook “How to not convince an editor to overturn the referees”, which is sad because it can be done, but it takes a very calm head and good tactical approach. It’s far from the first time I’ve seen cases where the authors’ have written an appeal that’s about as successful as the Vasa as an adjudicating referee or editor, so I figured I’d post some useful observations for how to or not to deal with referees when you don’t have a full hand of accept or accept with very minor revisions come back. (n.b., points below are not limited to that most recent paper or entirely motivated by it).

Being annoyed is ok, just don’t let it show: Everyone hates rejection. The key is to not show it. If that means sitting on the reports for two weeks fine. If that means walking around the corridor telling everyone how much those comments suck so they can remind you they get the same too, that’s also fine. Running, boxing, smashing plates, whatever it takes, expel the rage, get a zen like calm, then move on.

Ad hominem attacks on referees never work: Seems obvious I know, but you see them again and again. The editor is always going to side with their referees unless they’ve said something mind-blowingly stupid or inappropriate. Even if they do, you can be tactful about it. Questioning the referee’s competence, haste, or mental state is never helpful. Accusing them of impropriety, deception, etc. likewise.

Forget guessing who they are: You are always wrong. I’ve only ever seen one exception. It was clear the authors thought Person X was Referee F. Person X was certainly a referee, but they were Referee Q instead, and actually on their side. Some referees are good at masking themselves. They have the advantage in that. Don’t play this game, you never win.

Be unemotional in your response: A good editor will know you’re angry and just ignore any emotion and vitriol in your argument. A bad editor will let it colour you. Either way, it’s not the shown emotion that’s your worst enemy here. It’s the fact that the emotion kills your ability to carry off a very cool objective argument. If you have a strong point, you can back it with facts. You don’t need emotion. If anything, you can be completely concessionary and your argument will still draw blood if it’s sharp.

If you disagree, back it with facts and literature: The editor is not a fool. They will back their referees as an a priori position, always, but they are open to logical argument. Make sure that argument is as clear for a non-expert as you can make it but absolutely backable with evidence. It can help to point out what the referee is right about along with what they are not right about, because it’s rare that someone is 100% wrong. Be reasonable.

Make sure your logic is bulletproof: Try to anticipate counterarguments: where can you be defeated? Avoid things that are easily shot down. For example, saying that the fact that a report was returned within a few days means a proper job hasn’t been done is dangerous. Does the fact that a referee took 3 months mean they thus spent the entire 3 months on the report and it’s intrinsically better as a result? Probably not. Argument killed. Don’t put forward an argument that you cannot logically defend.

Always look to make concessions: Taking up “The referees are stupid, we’re changing nothing…” heel-dragging stance will always get you nowhere. In contrast, pointing out that a referee is correct or perhaps not completely correct, but you can see why they got confused and made changes x, y and z to make sure no one else gets confused the same way will get you everywhere. Editors love the hell out of this. The referees can be wrong and the editors will still find their value. They are the canary in the coal mine for your paper. They point out the obvious flaws could statistically hit 1/n of your readers (where n = number of referees) based on a small discrete sample. Fix the holes.

No tinfoil hats: Do not ever go down the path of accusing the whole set of referees of some kind of intrinsic collective bias against your field or against experimental/theoretical papers or against your work. The referees don’t know who the other referees are. They cannot be part of some crazy Illuminati-style conspiracy against you. Even if you suspect it, just don’t even go there…

Look where the train crashes: If a referee gets hung up at some aspect of the paper and then says they can’t see the significance or impact or whatever, it’s usually a sign that you lost them. A lost referee is rarely going to write an eight word report “I don’t get any of this, reject it”. What they normally do is pick it apart on the bits they know, and then reject the paper on the criteria. This will look like they only made technical arguments and have no justification to reject. The actuality for an editor, who knows who the referees are remember, is that it points out how broad your audience can be, because you can rely on people the same distance from your field as that referee having equal struggles with the paper. The clue for you is that the hang-ups point out where you start doing a bad job keeping your readers. This can be a powerful tool for improvements. Don’t think ‘what’s wrong with the referees?’, think instead ‘what do their comments tell me about how far they got in before I lost them?’. It could well be the first column, in which case you have a lot of work to do. All is not lost though — I have seen this fixed and turned into acceptances before (and done it myself too). It just takes some very clever mastery of techniques for handling referees.

The higher the journal, the broader the referees: It stuns me how many people submit to high impact journals somehow expecting that the set of referees will only contain experts in their tiny little subtopic. And then decide the way to rebut referees is to attack their technical expertise level. The higher journals never give you this set of referees, they want to find out what will happen to this paper in a diverse(read as non-expert) audience. That doesn’t mean they’ll send you to people who are clueless about the topic. But they will send you to people that are far enough away that they’ll get lost if you haven’t written your introduction and conclusions exceptionally well. If your referees don’t get it, I’m sorry but it’s not because they aren’t expert enough to appreciate it, it’s because you haven’t done a good enough job at writing for a broad audience. The only way to make amends in an editor’s eyes is to resubmit with major improvements on this side, no matter what round of revision it is. If you don’t, an editor can rarely help you because the referees’ comments stand and there’s really no way out of the fact that if they didn’t get it, the readership probably won’t either.

Just because you made revisions, doesn’t mean referee won’t still reject: Another flawed expectation from some authors. Some referees have a high bar, particularly in the top journals. Sometimes the paper is improved, but it’s still just not there. Some authors have a lottery approach to this, they grudgingly give concessions and go through rounds of revise and resubmit or revise and submit elsewhere until they find a set of referees that will take the work. The better approach is to keep working on improving your writing and upping the effort you put into making revisions. On the latter, always give 110% to revisions, go the extra mile if you can. Referees and editors are so used to crappy rebuttals and pathetic changes that even moderate efforts can have massive positive impact.

In the end, key points here, respect the referees, look for the hidden clues about how to make improvements, if you must argue then back it with facts, and sell on the improvements you’ve made rather than going head to head. I’ve never seen anyone go from reject to accept simply by going to war with the referees. It’s a losing strategy 100% of the time.

 

The Changing Conference Culture Club.

In my last post on conferences I wrote at the start about an experience earlier this year where a comment was made about how remarkably diverse the program was and a colleague said to me “I think that says more about the kinds of conferences that he attends and helps to organise than anything else”. On the flight home, I thought about whether I should have minimum standards for attending a conference and came up with some. I figured I’d start very conservative, in the hopes I wouldn’t start excluding anything too soon, and ramp upwards. As a scientist I like to be quantitative, so let’s be. Gender diversity is the easiest to set quantitative measures for. So my baselines for 2017 to attend a conference were >10% women speakers or I won’t speak and >5% women speakers or I won’t even attend. For the former, saying no frees up a slot that can be used to improve the ratio. For the latter, I’m affecting their bottom line, which should thereby hopefully affect change Darwin-style. My plan was to increment these by 1.5% per year such that when I reach 65 (2040) those thresholds are 44.50% to speak and 39.50% to attend (hell, if we don’t have that level of equality on this front by then I will explode). Other measures of diversity are harder to put precise metrics on, but include fair distributions on nationality, subject area, etc.

Remarkably, I am already running out of fingers to count the number of conferences I’ve had to bail on since February. Those following me on twitter will know of two I’ve mentioned recently. The first was an internal UNSW physics workshop, with 3 women in 36 speakers that, at 8.3%, just crossed my threshold for 2017 to attend. Just this week I was rather disappointed by the ICONN nanoelectronics program, which has 7/7 male invited speakers, and all up 2 women in 40 speakers (contributed + invited in nanoelec only). At 5%, this is below my 6.5% limit for 2018, so sadly, I won’t be seen at ICONN-2018 (sorry folks). To their credit, they are 4:4 on plenary speakers, 11 in 58 at invited across all streams and some of the other streams aren’t nearly as bad, but things can be much better, and as we all know ”the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. The last ICONN nanoelectronics program, for example, was 1:1 on plenary, 2:2 on invited speakers and 29% women speakers across the whole program — a program I wouldn’t find myself not speaking in through my minimum standards until 2029 and happy to attend as long as it’s before 2033 (whether I’m still in academia in 2033 is another question of course, especially when making this much trouble for the establishment :D).

Today, another conference I would be strongly encouraged to attend and support came across my radar (Thanks Sharath) — IUMRS-ICEM 2018. Get the flames of your barbecue ready folks, there’s more wurst here than a German butcher’s shop! Not only does it have 10 out of 10 male plenary speakers, but the invited line up has 10 women in 168 invited speakers. Yes, you read that right. Of all the plenary and invited speakers, less than 5.6% are women. Already below the 11.50% needed for me to bother submitting an abstract and the 6.5% needed to see me attend. Why on Earth would I advertise or support it? What it needs is to be shunned and ridiculed! I’ll stop here, as those three aren’t the only ones, and I don’t want to be a bore.

While running this week I was thinking more about how we affect real change here, especially in light of what I saw with ICONN, where lobbying for change, putting ‘right-minded individuals’ on committees, setting examples in past programs, etc. seem to not be affecting lasting change. My idea is “The Changing Conference Culture Club” (definitely not inspired by a certain band playing ICC Sydney tonight), and here is how it would work. It’s a website, in a similar vein to Publons, where scientists can do two things to help:

  1. The first is to publicly commit to minimum standards for attending and speaking at conferences. Members can keep a list on their personal page of the conferences that they’ve attended because they’ve met the standards and the ones they’ve declined because they haven’t. The site would then, at the start date for a given conference, collate stats for all the people who aren’t going to that conference because standards aren’t met, multiply that by the relevant registration rate, and inform the conference organisers by email (and on the website) how much they lost in registration fees for not having a properly diverse program.This is wallet democracy at it’s finest, folks, and Darwinism in action. We simply starve the worst conferences of funds until they collapse, and support those that do the right things with more funds. It’s not as though there aren’t enough conferences begging for the scant research funds most of us get these days.A useful extension would be to approach conference sponsors to commit to the program also, such that sponsorships are contingent on meeting set standards. The corporate responsibility factor here could be quite strong, and help to affect change.
  2. The second is to accumulate a track record of involvement in the organisation of conferences that do meet standards for diversity. The intention here is twofold. The first is to reward conference committees and their members for making gains in this area. In the same way as Publons does for peer review, this enables you to build proper metrics for this important contribution to healthy scientific society. The second is to enable committees to recruit members with a strong track record in building high quality conferences that also meet acceptable diversity standards. Make no mistake, conference organisation and committee membership is a line item in most scientists’ CV, and it should come with the requirement to demonstrate real outcomes on diversity targets.

With carrots and sticks like these, maybe we can convince conferences to start doing a proper job rather than making endless excuses… All it needs is an organisation that cares with some available resources and we’re away… an undertaking like this needs more than one onboard but count me in if an organisation with resources is happy to push this along.

Last comment. Please don’t be afraid to email conference organisers to express your disappointment with their program regarding diversity issues. It is easy for them to say ‘well there’s little complaint, so perhaps it’s just you’, right up until everyone is hassling them about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to organise a conference that makes science a better place…

I was recently at a conference where, at the end of the session, a distinguished old fellow stood up and interjected on closing comments to congratulate the committee for putting together the best conference session he’s ever been to in terms of women giving talks. It was a respectable 43% for 7 speakers (kudos to the organisers), but what a colleague whispered in my ear as we walked out to tea nailed it: “I think that says more about the kinds of conferences that he attends and helps to organise than anything else”. Exactly. It’s 2017, and a diverse speaker line-up should be the norm rather than the exception at a well organised conference these days.

Despite that, I still see myself asked to speak at or participate in organising conferences that are miles from sensible expectations for diversity of speaker line-up. The tragedy is that this is really not hard to achieve if you follow a few guidelines along the way.  You can even take a conference that’s been a weisswurstfest for years, and more or less immediately turn it around. And if you succeed, you help make it easier next time, and the time after, and so on. Here’s how it’s done:

0. The buck stops with you: As chair you and you alone are responsible for whether or not you meet your goals. You either make excuses or you make it happen, because it’s perfectly doable. You might not always succeed, but that’s certainly not because it’s impossible. Make sure you start early, because leaving it late makes the task of achieving your targets much harder.

1. Unstack your committee: The whole thing starts with the right program committee. If you don’t have diversity on your committee, then you are behind the 8-ball from scratch. Recruit with an eye for diversity (be it topic, experiment vs theory, nationality, gender, age, etc.) and be clear about your aims in this regard when recruiting members. Diversity of speakers should be discussed right from Day 1.

2. Set targets and minimum standards: You should have a target and you should have a floor of acceptability, since sometimes you will aim high and miss (especially if you are trying to fix a long history of imbalance). For example, each plenary from a different continent with no more than two from the same. Or gender balance at 50:50 but inside 65:35 at minimum. Or whatever it is. Decide these as a committee, as you all need to be mutually committed to them. If there is a particular imbalance you need to fix on a particular conference, choose it as a focus.

3. Assemble plenary and invited speaker suggestion lists: Make it clear that you expect the committee to provide diverse suggestions and that the process will not end until your lists meet or exceed your targets (not the minimum standards). As chair you need to lead by example on this; your own suggestion list should meet the targets or even exceed them (to cover off others). Do not do only the plenaries and not the inviteds at the same time; the invited list gives you depth to cover losses on your plenaries list without losing diversity. Make sure both lists have at least 50% more candidates than you are looking for, ideally 150%. Leftovers from the plenaries list can fall onto the invited list (or be on both).

Mostly in a conference that lacks diversity, it’s not that there’s a shortage of good diverse speakers, it’s that there’s a shortage of them on the starting list for ranking and the whole thing propagates from there.

4. Rank your plenary and invite lists: With a properly diverse starting list, the final ranked list is usually diverse even at the top. Bear in mind that merit and quality are not the same thing. If I had a dollar for every ‘great scientist’ (on merit) I’ve seen give an awful talk I could retire now. I’ve seen lots of great talks that inspire great discussion & new ideas without the speaker being the most meritorious also. Do what’s best for your program and will best appeal to a maximally diverse set of possible registrants.

5. Invite & lock in plenaries: Start with the women on your plenary list, they have far more challenging logistics regarding family care responsibilities (n.b. note about starting early in Rule 0). Doing this first also gives you the scheduling flexibility you need to make the program work. Reserve some budget to support childcare requirements if needed and requested (irrespective of gender). Use your inviteds list to fill holes in the plenaries as you work through. Make sure you have proper diversity at plenary level before moving on, like Rule 1, this sets the tone for everything that follows.

6. Invite & lock in invited talks: Same process as Rule 5. There is no excuse for this to not be diverse also. Be conscious of the fact that you can correct ‘small sample size’ issues at plenary level at the invited level as long as they aren’t too obviously egregious — Do not take this as an ok to give up diversity at plenary level thinking you can use invited level to fix it, that never works.

7. Make your call for contributed talks: Do this after you have plenary and invited talks confirmed and you have the committee, plenary speakers and invited speakers listed on the conference website. It is then obvious that you encourage diversity in participation (your actions are congruent with your words) and this should flow into the contributions that you receive. You may wish to encourage diversity in contributed talks, but if your line-up is right, you barely have to, especially if you have a few conferences worth of history in doing it.

8. Select contributed talks: Again, if everything is done right, your ranked lists will still be diverse even near the top, you shouldn’t have to tweak much to meet targets. That said, don’t be afraid to do so if needed, especially if you’re likely to hit your minimum standards. Some might argue this is not choosing ‘on merit’ but merit and privilege/compounded advantage are entangled. A part of a role of a conference is to expose new ideas and work; if you keep inviting the same speakers year in year out because of merit you both artificially generate merit and fail in your role to expose new ideas to an audience.

9. Talk frequently as a committee about diversity: You should be talking about this at each stage. Be willing to call out bias in selection without hostility or being offended about being called out on it. Have a committee rule that issues should be raised, high expectations set, and that making excuses such as ‘____ type of speaker just doesn’t exist’ isn’t good enough. You can always ask friends of friends to help suggest people if you don’t know.

10. Create a supportive environment: Have a conference code of conduct, make it clear on the website and in the conference book. As chair, be willing to enforce it if required.

11. Help the next conference: Be willing to share your plenary and invited lists with the next committee. This can give them a head-start and help ensure they don’t invite the same people again and again for lack of imagination. Be willing to advise the next committee if needed. Don’t let them make excuses for why it can’t be done. After all, you’ve done it, right?

12. Be selective about the conferences you associate with: Support the conferences that are good on this, avoid the ones that aren’t. This is the only way we see dinosaurs off to extinction and evolve to a new normal.

Bunged pipelines, professorial pensions and academic exit strategies

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while (with a small beery blow-out a few weeks back) and has now reached critical mass after I read a really nice article in the Guardian titled “Should ageing academics be forced to quit?”. It unleashes a new term “Bunged pipeline” that’s the finest I’ve seen since #ponzidemia, to quote directly:

“But a third inequality exists, so conspicuous that many of us don’t even see it. And that is the ageing population of (largely white, male) professors, who, since the 2011 law abolishing a mandatory retirement age, are holding onto their posts for longer than ever before. This is a problem because there are a limited number of professorships, and there is an ever swelling glut of PhD students and trainees looking to make a career in science.

This pipeline is not leaky – rather, the tap is on full and someone has stuck a bung into the other end. Something, as they say, has got to give.”

It sure as hell does! This problem doesn’t just hold at Oxford, it holds everywhere I’ve ever worked and visited as an academic (some much worse than others). It leads to an interesting question, one I was rhetorically asking the same evening this fermenting post prematurely blew the seal on the fermenter — Why the hell are these guys still here? Haven’t they got something better to do? Why don’t they get a life? Why not retire from science at 45 or 50?

I see three answers to this question, mildly inter-related and yet sometimes decoupled. They are:

  1. What I call the ‘professorial pension’, a nasty mix of tenure, weak payscale design.
  2. The twisted value systems of academia (and the old-boy feedback loop).
  3. The lack of established exit strategies.

I’m gonna start with 2, as I’m writing to a personal time limit today (practicing some mad journalism skillz). How does society define success in academia? What stereotype does it assign? Excepting the mad Einstein trope, what we’re normally presented with is the esteemed old gent, aged and wise, able to present a long CV full of awards and accolades and admissions to distinguished academies. This is a golden period of getting to hang around as the local reigning silverback, resting on your laurels, passing forth pronouncements of great wit and wisdom that are hungrily received by the next generation.

With the possible exception of Feynman (own set of problems), the scientific role models we’re all presented are largely devoid of any other kind of a life beyond this. We enter academia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and within the space of a Ph.D. and a postdoc, we’re easily sold on this line that all we should want in life is to be the grand old distinguished professor. Diversity is a relatively recent thing in the grand scheme of science, and it’s only now many of us see this as a cookie cutter we have no desire at all to fit. But in the good old days, the trope was magic, and given how many older professors I see desperately trying to fit that classic stereotype, it’s very clear that it has serious sway. Societal value systems are important, they’re the yardstick we use to define our own self-esteem. They drive us to leave communities when we don’t feel like we fit (part of why we have a leaky pipeline in terms of diversity in science), they also drive some of us to stay…

If we want to fix the “Bunged Pipeline” we really need to redefine success in academia. Perhaps it needs to be more like professional sport, we come in, we reach our peak, and then we retire to contribute elsewhere. Where the people who hold on too long risk real ridicule and loss of face, much like Michael Schumacher and Bjorn Borg and Mark Spitz. Maybe in academia it should be all about picking the right time to go, and your currency is then about what else you managed to do for the world thereafter. After all, I think it is pretty widely acknowledged that scientists do their best work in their 30s and 40s, despite there being a few exceptions (good policy is all about catering exceptions well).

In my view, the old world picture of academia and senior professors is now so obsolete as to be totally comical. I’m not sure about the younger generations, and while there are some of my Gen-X colleagues who are sold on this dream, many of us quietly ridicule the whole charade with a 50%/50% mix of mockery at the inability of many of them to even deal with, e.g., an online form, let alone big data, and jealousy at how good a deal they have, one that we or any generation following us will ever receive, which brings me to 1.

Look in many university departments at who is carrying the hard graft of making the department work and it’s almost always the most senior people who aren’t yet full professor. I know in my own department, with the exception of the head of school, the key tasks are all carried by young cadre of A/Profs and Senior Lecturers. The key reason for this is what I call the ‘professorial pension’ and feigned incompetence. The academic system is designed as a game of snakes and ladders with lots of ladders and some snakes down low that basically throw you out of the game entirely. Pay scales with level, and so the higher you go, the more you get paid. And don’t think this is just about that single magical Professor (E1) pay grade, the only one you ever see on a HR website… there’s a set of unlisted levels up there that you only find out about through some special linear combination of jealousy, boasting and alcohol or getting promoted to Prof. yourself. As someone famously quipped ‘Level E is the new Level B’. And in the gold old days, there were even special deals like free parking, cars, paid mobile phones, etc. as grapevine has it. I suspect this is mostly gone now.

The kicker is once you’re up there, you just never come back down. Imagine that, you get that magic promotion to Professor and, presuming you don’t do something so bad as to get fired and can avoid your department being disbanded entirely, you will be paid at least $180k for the rest of your working life, and then a super-sweet defined-benefit pension deal thereafter (separate ponzi for a separate post). Why the hell would you do anything to benefit your department any more? It’s not like you have to take on any of these admin or leadership roles to get ahead. And hey, suppose you can’t bring yourself to say no, you can always bungle them just badly enough that no one ever gives them to you again, yet not so bad that you get fired. You become a member of that special class of ‘basket case’ professors, the ones that can’t be given tasks because they won’t get done or will end up as a disaster. It doesn’t take long in your life as a senior lecturer or A/Prof. to find yourself carrying a sea of key tasks, and when you say ‘but who else can do it’, be worked through a list of “What about Prof. A? Nah, he’s a basket case, can’t give it to him. What about Prof. B? Oh, you should see what happened last time he got given a task…” Nothing like being able to just leave a disaster for others to clear and walk away with that swagger that only a guaranteed income can provide (“the more you ignore it, the cooler you look”).

There’s other problems that come from this ‘professorial pension’, beyond a bunch of overpaid professors, past their prime, contributing little to their departments, while collecting a huge wadge of the departmental budget. What about the leadership of actually transforming the higher education system into something that is sustainable, via serious and possibly quite unpopular reform at the senior professoriate level, i.e. pulling out the bung? There’s little drive to do that either. Always back the horse called self-interest, right?

I’m going to credit my colleague Dane McCamey with this solution (he may well blame me instead for this crazy idea), but one wonders if it’s high time that the university system decoupled salaries from promotion, which is probably more palatable than my earlier suggestion of having ‘academic demotions’ (i.e., snakes at higher levels) in light of 2 above. Why should a professor at level E1 contributing much less to their university and department than a senior lecturer at C3 get paid so much more? And I’m not talking about on an annual basis here, I’m talking about the E’s who’ve done bugger all for years but still collect that fat premium? How is there going to be an incentive to either a) keep pushing your envelope, or b) go do something else and make room for the next generation, if you simply have to show up each day to keep earning the top salary in the remunerations structure no matter what you do?

Just to be clear, I wouldn’t go so far as tying salaries to publishing metrics and grant incomes and such in a linear and unsmoothed way — having salaries that fluctuate massively with your fortunes in massively over-subscribed fund lotteries or your ability to wring papers out of savagely underpaid Ph.D. students will create a whole new world of pain — but perhaps a way to unbung the pipeline is to stop making the system so financially comfortable for all the old professors who are jamming up the system? Perhaps they need to be re-exposed to the reality of needing to make useful contributions at a level commensurate to what they’re being paid. And if they aren’t, then there needs to be a financial incentive to do so.

Lastly to 3, maybe if we fix 2 and 1 above, there would become at least a slight incentive to leave academia, at least more than there is now. But will people take it if we don’t provide pathways to do so? In my opinion the career development structures in academia are woeful. In recent years, they’ve gone from nothing at all to an illusory minimum of an ‘annual performance review’ and a few voluntary half-day courses provided, if you can find the time amongst all the other tasks you’ve been lumped with. Of course, the people who’d love to do them and have some aptitude can’t because they’re too busy carrying all the load, and the ones who should and could have no incentive to anyway (Hey, I’m an E1 and tenured, why the hell should I develop myself, I’m fine).

Some of us, myself included, aspire to one day leave academia and contribute elsewhere in society. This is good for the universities in many ways, not the least in that it fixes the ‘bunged pipeline’, but that it enables them to broaden their impact on society. But the current behaviour by universities is quite the opposite — to declare an interest in stepping off the academic ladder is very dangerous (I take some risk in just articulating it here) because your colleagues will rapidly question your commitment to the research cause. This carries strong negatives in terms of allocation of funds and critical support both internally and externally. It also provides a disincentive to leave, which just naturally reinforces the exact problem we have now in 2. above.

Universities really need to do a much better job of helping their people to leave, and this should be, as all good things are, a mix of carrot and stick. The stick was mostly dealt with above on 1. The carrot is that universities can provide, as a fringe benefit, the exact thing that’s needed for their staff to take new careers — retraining. There’s a golden opportunity here for universities to generate something that has great reward for their business but near negligible cost. All academic staff should have, as a fringe benefit, the ability to sit one course a semester for free — they don’t have to take it, but they can. It can be anything they like, but it must count for proper credit on a real academic transcript and be accruable into a full degree. The university should also establish programs that enable more senior staff to build pathways out of academia into new sectors of society, e.g., industry, government, etc. Let me give an example for how this works.

Professor X gets to 45. It’s clear they’ve peaked, their field of research is getting tired, and they’d need a major reskilling beyond what a sabbatical can provide to stay at the pointy edge of science. Maybe they aspire to do something else anyway. University builds a plan to keep them going to a mutually agreed retirement point at 5 year horizon with sensible wind-down. They might want to go into public policy, so they do some subjects related to that for free in the background. They might want to go into data analytics and be short on the modern edge on the computing side. They might have, at 25, turned up a career in investment banking, and want to learn some finance and take their skills across. The university can help smooth the path via relationships with employers, etc., perhaps get them into some internships as the very end of the 5 year window approaches. It’s win-win here — Prof X gets to do something new and the university has someone placed in industry that they have a good link to (and substantial good will since they helped them get there rather than just suddenly dumping them on the kerb with a redundancy package). The universities also get to more sustainably manage their HR resource over time to ensure it stays current and modern, using a resource they can easily provide very cheaply, namely access to reskilling and existing links. It’s the kind of leadership in reform that I was hinting at earlier.

OK, that’s word and time limit for me. Quick acknowledgements to Marguerite Galea’s twitter feed for making me spot the Guardian article on the bunged pipeline, discussions on this topic with colleagues both IRL (Dane McCamey about better balancing pay with contributions & Merlin Crossley about how things can be improved for younger academics and how I need to think more pragmatically about this, in particular.) and online (too many to name all, but Mel Thomson is a key one).