Almost surely I fly well Below's Dan's radar, so I doubt he'd actually take me to task, but that's not the point, is it?
I really enjoy reading Dan Graur posts at his Judge Starling blog. Dan is fun and one of the good people fighting for good science (in a very cranky way). Because Dan can be pretty blunt in putting down dubious and exaggerated claims, I sometimes ask myself "am I stating something terminally stupid? Will Dan make fun of me at Judge Starling? ". That's a good way of keeping focus on what I can legitimately infer and what I just want to read in my results, and I like that. On a similar note I can recommend Lior Pachter's blog.
 Almost surely I fly well Below's Dan's radar, so I doubt he'd actually take me to task, but that's not the point, is it?
About two months ago a number of people at Imperial College (and not just there) received an email from the late Professor Stefan Grimm. The email seems to have been sent on a time delay because Prof Grimm passed away in September. You can find all the sad details here, here and here. I know many friends and colleagues have expressed their opinion on this specific event, and more broadly on the state of British academia, and I would like to contribute a few thoughts.
In recent years British academia has become more and more focused on money. The value of an idea, any idea, is measured in not equivocal terms on its ability to attract funding, i.e. money. Academic institutions receive government funding based on a ‘research excellence’ metric which tries to capture the ‘excellence’ of the research carried out at an institution, meaning that only work that contributes to the ‘excellence’ metric contributes to the coffers of a university. British academia has adapted to this relentless demand to compete for money by imposing to its staff that its main focus is to get grants and produce work useful for the ‘excellence’ metric; and by creating a rigid top down management whose sole purpose is to enforce this quest for funding.
As always in the real world the best laid plans often conflict with how the world actually works, and this conflict gives rise to a number of unintended consequences. The first unintended consequence is that the pursuit of what managements defines as ‘novel’ and ‘glamorous’ will diminish the intellectual value of British academia as a whole. In 2014 it is firmly established that no one result or observation guarantees that a specific phenomenon, theory or effect is real — the only guarantee comes from replication. Replication is the only thing that can prove that results and observations are actually reproducible, and that allow us to build and increase our understanding of the world. Unfortunately, since academia, funding bodies and the editorial boards of papers have been taken over by top down management culture, solid rigorous science is penalised in favour of anything that can be branded as ’novel’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘state of the art’ and similar platitudes. Scientific research is not about launching a new product on the market, it is about properly understanding what is going on in a well defined field with a clear intellectual foundation. Most importantly, unless someone actually comes up with a new conceptual framework a lot of the ‘novelty’ research is just the same old rope with just flashier technology. Because the ‘managers’ that now plague British academia do not take these simple facts in consideration (possibly because in Britain people are appointed to a position of power, they are not elected by their peers), we are now effectively penalising many serious researchers and forcing people to only focus on research that meets the short term goals of bringing in money and meeting arbitrary metrics. This pressure will eventually push out all the people who want to do serious science and attract only those who can put up with the modest intellectual challenges that management allows them to work on. This policy will leave British academia directionless and intellectually empty, and will transform any research in technology and data driven drivel that can at most pick up low hanging fruits and will deliver less and less as time goes on.
The second problem with how British academia is managed is the culture of intellectual dishonesty that is forced upon people. People are not allowed to just express their goals in simple honest terms. They are required to spin and embellish everything in order to have half a chance of getting some funding or publishing in a high impact journal – both crucial to contribute to the ‘excellence metric’. Many people are well aware that they are overselling their work, and they do it reluctantly and under duress — and they deeply resent it. Only the shameless cynics thrive in such environment. What academia needs is open and honest intellectual debate, desire for rigorous investigation and actual intellectual competence, not top down management. British academia is now facing the attempt to transform intellectual work into predictable bureaucracy. One particularly deleterious corollary of this lack of honesty is the fact that, to obtain funding, people are expected to provide an assessment of the ‘impact’ of their research, before the research is actually done. Obviously nobody can tell what the impact of something that has not been done yet will be — nevertheless people are actually expected to show that their research will have an ‘impact’, and guaranteed outcomes to boot. The net result of this fatuous approach is that people are actually forced to limit and dumb down their research proposals to actually have a chance of being funded: who can risk writing a grant that tackles a challenging problem and thus has an uncertain outcome?
Another pernicious problem that the current management style imposes on British academia can be summarised as ‘everything is easy if you are not the one doing it’. Managements expects ‘results’ despite the fact that between starting to work on a project and getting anything out of it will take a substantial amount of time and work. Can someone please remind me of how long it took to go from the theoretical postulation of the Higgs boson to actually proving it exists? Let’s also not delve in the unpleasant notion that sometimes the best work, carried out competently and without any delays still produce unexciting results — stuff that can only be published in ‘second tier’ journals. There are out there some people giving silly advice such as ‘people at the start of an academic career should only work on exciting problems that are easy to address’, because science is full of low hanging fruits, exciting easy stuff that nobody is somehow touching! Also, senior academics especially identify and save this kind of work for junior colleagues, in the selfless attempt to help their junior’s careers. The bottom line is that it is easy to tell to others to go and get some exciting results, actually getting them is a different matter. Any sensible person does understand this problem, but to the eyes of the people managing British academia everything is easy.
Management does not simply find that doing research is easy, it also thinks that skill and expertise can be acquired cheaply and fast (probably because they never tried and they have this utterly wrong image of ‘consultants’ waltzing in, with all bells and whistles ready). This creates a peculiar problem: on the one hand management is unlikely to value actual skill and expertise, because people who have skill and expertise are equated to expendable technical labourers. On the other hand, because expertise is devalued it is actually easy to push the most risible hokum provided it is clouded in incomprehensible jargon — nobody wants to say ‘I do not understand what you are talking about’. Case in point is the recent raise of ‘big data’. Because collecting data without any plan or strategy is easy, it has been possible to sell the convenient but erroneous idea that all we need to do is to be clever after the fact. Notions of how scientific ideas are actually falsified, how experiments are planned and how data analysis actually works are just not part of the deal, because some magical computational or statistical tool will solve everything. Garbage in, garbage out.
Finally we get to the topic of day, the REF. Let’s be clear, the REF misses the point completely. The assumption that we can summarise the work of complex institutions as universities are in a few simple metrics is just plainly wrong. It is put forward by those who believe that for every complex problem there is a simple solution (whereas the maxim is that for every complex problem there is a solution that is obvious, simple and *wrong*). Aside from the fact that the REF enforces the status quo, where big well funded institutions score high and keep being well funded, whereas small institutions start with the insurmountable handicap of being small and poorly funded, the REF also pushes the worst possible incentives. Academics need to have a high REF score to keep their position, and in many institutions management will ruthlessly cull anybody who fails to help in achieving the high score desired. The score can be quickly improved by pressurising people into leaving, and I have witnessed this procedure a few times. Because the only things that matters are money and REF points, produced and provided at predictable intervals, people are under constant pressure to provide both, which is a potent incentive for good people to quit and for bad people to ‘bend the rules’ to meet these requirement — is it a surprise that the impact factor of a journal (a basic requirement for the REF) correlates with the retraction?
I know that a number of people will not recognise the portrait I am painting, so let me tell them: count your blessings. As things are going, any research group, department or institution that values science over money and REF points is at risk of wholesale extirpation, and sadly the writing is on the wall. I would gladly be wrong on this issue, in fact, nothing would please me more than being proven wrong. In addition, please do take a good hard look at yourself and around you. Academia fosters a strong culture and habit of loyalty, based on the assumption that senior staff will mentor and look after junior staff, who in turn repay this help with loyalty and hard work. This template might have worked in the past. In the present avaricious times it is important to make sure that we are loyal to the right people, and that our loyalty should not be taken for granted.
I would like to finish this long post with two more thoughts. The first is that we cannot always be at the top of the game, because this is simply impossible. Many factors well outside our control play a part in our intellectual achievements as academics. Unfortunately ‘everything is easy’ for the people who want to manage British academia, and sooner or later one will be at a slow point exactly when they are expected to deliver money and REF points. What happens then? Unfortunately tragedies like the one of the late Prof Grimm might become more, not less, common.
Second, just in case people have not thought of it, the email that Prof Grimm sent in October did not magically make its way to the press by itself. While many people are feeling disenchanted with academia and leave, more and more insiders are taking a combative stance against the mindless hogwash that threatens the foundations of British academia and the people that push it. We should all stand up and be counted, or we will not be able to complain in the future. It would be great if management could live up to it’s role and abandon the idea that scientific research is simple, predictable and quickly profitable, and actually help build the future of British academia.