Why it’s imperative for EMCRs to reframe ‘merit’ & ‘opportunity’: Parting thoughts on #SciPath16

One of the joys of a conference in your own town is that you don’t have to catch any planes. So while the buses with my airport-bound colleagues are stuck in Sydney’s traffic, I’m home with a cold drink and a spare hour to brain-dump on my 2 days at the Australian Academy of Science’s wonderful Science Pathways 2016 meeting on science leadership for early and mid-career researchers. As my last event as an EMCR I feel extra compelled to write on my thoughts after this.

Often buried in every role model is an anti role model; in every example to follow an example not to follow. This is the human condition — we are all featured and flawed, gemstones with chips and scratches. We’re presented the shiniest gemstones of unobtainium as our lessons, but the real lessons are often in the chips and scratches, they tell important stories too. Often, they’re functions of their environment.

So amongst all the success and selling of ‘superheroes & superheroines’ and ‘rockstars’ there’s a murky edge of disturbing. A passing comment about managing someone who reads the paper during their breaks out of science as they clearly aren’t committed or passionate enough. Or a suggestion that going to a developing country with pneumonia demonstrates commitment to the job. Or a research-backed media presence that’s clearly more than what one person alone can produce, sold with glossy slides that all say ‘I’ and show one person. This was unmissable in the background discussion on twitter and in breaks during the meeting, all of the things above were highlighted, with alarm or suspicion, by other delegates.

For me, these are symptoms of a broken system, where the way we value scientific contributions is all wrong. Where one well rewarded way to ‘game’ the system and get competitive advantage is to abuse yourself, abuse your team, abuse your family to get ahead. Many will find my use of the word abuse inflammatory but see it from the perspective of students who are in the lab late at night mostly because they fear that the boss might come through late and bollock them for not being there or question their commitment & ‘manage them out’. Or a partner who carries most of the parenting burden for your job, and has given up their own hopes and dreams to do so. Or the kids who feel neglected, or see their parents separate and their home broken by one parent’s workaholism. Or, see it from the perspective of you on your deathbed (trust me, you may be there sooner than you think…), do you wish you had all those hours you wasted to failed grants and rejected papers and unpaid editorial positions back? Yep, it’s abuse, take the blinkers off. Why do we feel so compelled to do this? Why as a system do we award unhealthy and addictive behaviours? Were I a drug addict, I’d likely be fired, but if I’m a work addict, why is that suddenly so de rigueur? Likewise, if I’m an abusive jerk to my charges, why is that ok and accepted by senior management as long as I’m a ‘rockstar’ or high performer but a cause for my firing if I’m merely an ok performer? Why do we laud people who praise overworking when we know that it’s terrible for employee effectiveness?

Let’s see another angle. There was a comment in the final session that we need more EMCR focussed funding programs at ARC & NHMRC, there isn’t enough money. But hey, we already have them. You want more, Oliver? What? An ECR ask for more?

Why? More interestingly, why do we even need these programs at all?

The answer in both lines of discussion is that the whole framing of ‘merit relative to opportunity’ is broken — it is the number 1 thing that EMCRs need to focus on reframing if we want science to get better. Everything else is just band-aid solutions.

Back to funding for a second. Why do we have ECR funding? Well, it’s because if we don’t have it, all the money goes to the people with the greatest accumulated career ‘track record’. To pilfer from Gorilla biology (w/ a humble bow to @DrMel_T), it largely goes to the ‘Silverbacks‘ in each research area — the mostly beyond middle age, mostly male, mostly most institutionally privileged professors in the system. What we’ve done to fix this is to put in patches. We put in the ECR patch to shunt a little cash back to people in first 5 years. Then we put in an MCR patch (Future Fellows) to shunt a little cash back there. We put in an ‘opportunity’ patch to give appearance of properly facilitating career breaks. We run other demographic patches to help fix up holes for women and indigenous researchers and so forth. But where does most of the money still go? Of course…

And those patches are easily fixed — if you run the system, you can rule around them. Anyone who’s watched ARC publication lists go from last 5 years to last 10 years to forever (and for emeriti that’s a lot of achievement!) will know this. What EMCRs often don’t see coming is the ‘valley of the shadows’ right after the EMCR schemes end, this happens irrespective of where you end the EMCR programs.

Think about this like a pair of pants. You can only put so many patches over the holes before they’re no longer worth wearing… There comes a time to get a new pair of pants, and we’ve well reached the time to get a new framing for ‘merit relative to opportunity’, because if it’s a good one, there isn’t a need for all these ‘patch’ schemes to fix inequities in the funding system. There isn’t a need to work 14 hour days 7 days a week (or think you should try to), or get on planes when the risk you’ll be hospitalised on the otherside is obvious and real.

There’s two aspects to this. Merit and Opportunity. Let’s deal with these separately for a second.

Opportunity: Currently opportunity is mostly just enacted for extended absences from the traditional academic pathway. It is a system that ignores the majority and deals with the few — we should have this but can we do better? Yes, we can.

The problem with ‘opportunity’ assessment is that it entirely ignores the people who don’t even need or use it – the people who already have massive resources at their disposal and can beat everyone else to death with them. Do we ever properly consider their massive opportunity?

Anyone noticed how, for all the pages and pages on ROPE in ARC grants, there’s never any clear quantitative summation of how much resources were made available that went into producing a given CI’s achievements? How assessors aren’t even explicitly asked to comment on opportunity explicitly as its own required line item? How there aren’t very pointed questions, structured in a properly equitable way, that enable the P in ROPE to be properly and meaningfully assessed across *everyone* across all proposals, not just the few who need an offset.

We need structures & metrics to properly tabulate, quantify and meaningfully assess opportunity as much as we have these things to quantify outcomes already, flaws and all. We need to do this without the obfuscation of written prose, same as we have for outcomes now. Until we have them, there will always be a skew in favour of cumulative merit over a proper performance:opportunity ratio that enables EMCRs, women, etc to fairly compete in the system.

Merit:  Currently, whether you’re an ECR or an emeriti, it all comes down to this: Whoever has the most papers, citations, funding, h-index, equipment, students, etc. wins, pure and simple. Even if you fix opportunity above, ECRs will *never* win a proper share of resources or be fairly valued without patches to the system. Why is what we value simply this, irrespective of role, whether it’s the person at the lab bench doing the science, or the leader of a small lab group, or the Director of an Institute, given that those roles are so disparate in their skills and requirements? Why do we see earning money as such an important key indicator that you should earn yet more money? Why is input considered an outcome? Ultimately, it’s simply because merit by accumulated advantage benefits the people with power over how the system runs — there’s no problem for them in this, so clearly, there’s no problem and no need for a solution either (except patches to assuage complaints about how rigged the system is).

The only way we build a fair scientific system is to properly define what we value in the context of the decision being made. This can, and possibly should, be different for funding, tenure, promotion, etc. Ultimately, much of the latter is influenced by funding (as Nikola Bowden pointed out this afternoon), so let’s start there…

Since I’m a physicist, I’ll be ARC specific for now. There’s been lots of talk about cutting track record down from 40% to less (I’d say 25%, but anyway) let’s consider instead that what we do is fragment that score into pieces consistent with what we value in a project. So, let’s first ask, what do we value in a good solid team project? We want strong intellectual leadership, it could be one but more ideally a few people with the creative, strategic and team leadership skills that together enable the project to be conceived and driven. They may have an advisory or oversight group. Under them, we want a set of small teams of active researchers lead by capable junior investigators, driving components of the overall project. Together we want a team that, from bottom to top, adequately covers the skills and demands of the project so that a vision translated into a sensible x year package of work can be meaningfully attempted. We need to know who that whole team is to meaningfully assess it. And lastly, we might consider how good the members making that team up are as individuals. Not all teams are equal; this matters, but it shouldn’t be 40% of the decision making process.

So what we’re looking at is 10% strength and appropriateness of leadership team and oversight group (if there is one), 10% strengths of hands-on team for project, 10% on how suited the overall team assembled is to realistically tackle the project and 10% for excellence of researchers (what was once track record and worth 40%).

How we assess excellence of a researcher should likewise depend on career stage. It doesn’t need page after page to assess like current ARC proposals. It can be dealt with in 2 pages per person like it is in almost every other funding system (many of which are far more equitable than what we have here in Australia currently).

For people up to 10 years post-PhD it should entirely be about outcomes and skills, more or less how we assess ECRs now. Are you producing good papers, can you demonstrate output from different teams, how well do your skills fit the project?

For people in the 10-25 years post-PhD range this is about a growing role in project leadership. Less focus on authorships near front of papers, more focus on authorships near back of papers and good mentorship of students and junior post-docs (given assessment for 25+ this should include last authorship as one closes in on 25 years). Some account for growing skills at management, leadership, outreach, community engagement, etc. Growing visibility in the field.

For people 25+ years post-PhD it is all about leadership and mentoring. Papers count for zero, publishing metrics count for zero, things about you as an individual count for zero. Leadership is not about you, leadership is about your team and what you give to them. You are there to serve not to take. Assessment would focus on ability to build teams, engage teams, manage them effectively, enable the next generation to be highly productive, strength of community engagement and translation into impact for end users. You don’t hire senior researchers for paper counts, or for a highly cited paper that they did 25 years ago. You hire them for what they bring on the human side of science. As a result, any serious funding agency or university would base this on formal 360 degree performance appraisal as a way to ensure that research teams really do have effective leaders and not the selfish micromanaging egomaniacs that often dominate science nowadays (the same people we were ‘acting out’ during the skits at last night’s fantastic networking mixer).

The goal here is to make senior researchers work to benefit the greater good of the scientific community not the greater good of their own accumulated merit and ego. It makes science into a proper team endeavour and it means it gets managed properly by people who have a real incentive to get proper training in methods for managing people well.

If there’s a lions share of the assessment on having a proper team and less on just ‘having big metrics’, then there’s much less incentive to hide inconvenient team members as happens now. Less incentive for department heads to send out emails with things like “Building the best team might involve … taking painful decisions to leave people off the list who might have helped with the research that has driven the application or actually prepared the application.” (yes, it’s a real quote, no, it’s not in my management chain & no further comment to avoid exposing the source to retribution). Why we accept this behaviour as academics is staggering when, if our undergraduates did it, we’d have them disciplined for student misconduct.

Let’s also see the benefits. There’s an incentive for people to be better trained in proper management and leadership, incentives not to be a monstrous leader, to actually care about building and operating proper scientific teams. There’s a proper career pathway that doesn’t involve working yourself into the ground for the sole purpose of massive accumulation of personal metrics and prestige.

Denouement: Ultimately, until we fairly define merit and opportunity and then combine them to properly assess one relative to the other for *all* researchers when combined as effective teams, we will never get a truly fair allocation of resources or systems for valuing contributions in science. We will always rely on patches to (very imperfectly) clean-up skews in the system. We will always have resources and people lost to ego wars and terrible leadership, and failures to effectively build team efforts.

Early and mid-career researchers, remember that you are a large constituency. There are many of you and without you, the folks at the top simply can’t survive (take your professor down the lab, give them a task and no instruction, and watch… 9/10 will likely emerge shaking and in tears — now imagine if they had to do the whole project themselves. 🙂 ). You are the engine of innovation in every country. This means you truly are in a position to reframe these aspects to be better, and advocate for that change. Don’t let the disempowerment that comes from bad leaders discourage you. It just takes resolve to properly define the terms, collect together and use strength in numbers as part of the advocacy. Events like this meeting are the catalyst for that.

The key point here: don’t set your sights so low. You don’t need more band-aid solutions, they only cover symptoms and don’t cure the underlying disease. What you need is proper change and proper leadership to drive it. Have high expectations, push the leadership hard, the ones worth their salt will step up to the task (and must if we want science in Australia to truly thrive).










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