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.

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