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Research, funding and social mobility

October 30, 2012

If you are a rich person do you have a duty to the world? That’s possibly not a question many academics need ask themselves very often. Though, in fact, they…we are very wealthy in comparison to most people in the world. We’re also wealthy in time and freedom as well as money.

The cover of Unicorn School by Linda Chapman

Please click on this image and have a look at Linda Chapman’s delightful book. It may be just what you are looking for. I’m afraid it just seems eerily apposite for this post.

Though the notion of academic freedom has been steadily eroded over the last 20 years.

Now, if we want to contribute to the sum of human happiness and knowledge we must first and foremost contribute to the institution that pays us, doing three things –

  • Teaching (of which, if you are successful, you gradually do less)
  • Earn consultancy income (which will exempt you from more teaching)

and, related to this

  • Win research funding

It is the latter that is most prized since it also elevates your status as an academic and that of your institution as well as helping to generate the second sources of income, consultancy.

But getting there is one hell of a job.

You may be fortunate in that you took a Masters and were picked up by a more experienced researcher, perhaps with a few journal publications under her belt or…well, that’s possibly the only way because you then have to get onto the PhD track and that involves finding a mythical beast with a single horn and the ability to fly, dispensing magic dust as he (or she) does so.

The unicorn metaphor may be an exaggeration.

Nevertheless, what you need to find is an academic who is

a)      Interested in your subject

b)      And knows about it

c)       And has already supervised other PhD students to completion

d)      And has the time to supervise you (either being very well rewarded or a philanthropist)

e)      And available, i.e. not already overworked with those other PhD students, consultancy and research

Unicorns might, in fact, be more available.

All of this is becoming ever more difficult because these same mythical, altruistic, great researchers who also happen to be great supervisors are fearfully facing the b*****d in the black. The REF.

The REF (as any fule no) is actually the ‘Research Excellence Framework’, the mechanism by which the Government (via a quango called HEFCE and various committees and boards) allocates funding for the research activities of universities.

And it’s not enough to produce interesting, innovative or even revolutionary new knowledge, however much you tour global capitals bringing conference audiences to their feet in rapturous applause. No. Your work has to have “impact”. And “global impact” is best of all.

You can read a much more informed discussion of this here.

So, this set me thinking about scrabbling up from a reasonably intelligent undergrad at a pretty good university, paying your way through a Masters and then facing around £3,000 p.a. for 6 or 7 years (after tax) to get a doctorate.  Always assuming you can find a unicorn to supervise you.

What are the chances that you could get into this increasingly closed shop? What are the chances that, once in, you could publish in academic journals – about the only way to demonstrate that your research is being taken seriously?

And there is another barrier. Most journals take about a year to reject a paper – if it’s good. Maybe two years to publish at best.  Furthermore most journals are 2*, 1* or even ‘no star’; what the REF process considers ‘low impact’.  That is, they are not globally important or 4* journals.  This is often because they are new or work across disciplines – these, arguably, are where the most challenging work should be appearing.

Add to that the fact that the pre-eminent journals have a queue of established academics waiting to be published.  If they get fed up waiting, they may write a version of their research paper for a lesser journal; less room for the newbie. And, on this treadmill, how much time do those established researchers have for becoming philanthropic unicorns? The new researcher is squeezed out even more.

So, in order to be successful, essentially you have to be successful. To get funding you probably have to come from an institution that already has funding. It’s almost as if the system was built to give all the research money to those that have it already.

But here’s the twist.

If the new REF, which will be implemented in 2013, is really to reward impact, how can they possibly look at publications in those well-established, high-flying journals? These journals are subscription only with circulation figures in the hundreds. About the only people who buy them are the well-endowed, research-wealthy universities – and those who’d like to be. Businesses rarely if ever refer to such journals and governments will always flatter a researcher into summarising the most important findings for them.

I wonder if those institutions at the top of the research-funding league are happy with this reinforcement of their position.  Can they argue that “Stigmatized Categories and Public Disapproval of Organizations: A Mixed-Methods Study of the Global Arms Industry, 1996–2007” (a real example) has real global impact because it appears in one of the highest ranked management journals?

Might there not be some value in them sharing the wealth a little? Might they not have a duty to bring researchers who are in other institutions into their funded projects?  To spread subject-specific knowledge of course, but also to disseminate the skills and insider understanding needed to generate such research in the first place.

To create a generation of experienced researchers spread across Britain’s universities, now that would be an impact.

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