Whoever Said Life Is Fair?

Any parent will be familiar with a child’s endless whine that ‘it isn’t fair’ – that their sibling got the larger slice of cake or that their classmate’s bedtime is half an hour later than theirs. And the parent’s logical repsonse is to say something along the lines of ‘whoever said life is fair?’ That life isn’t fair applies just as much at every stage of life, and all you can do is the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt with: the genes and the parental upbringing; the teachers you encounter at school and university; the state of the job market when you graduate and so on. These are things that you have no control over so that your only option is to try to cope with the situations in the ways that seem best at the time and without 2020 hindsight. Plus plan and guess what the probabilities of certain outcomes may be. With that preamble, I am now going to risk getting thrown off the Occam’s Typewriter website by posting a response to my co-blogger Jenny Rohn’s latest moving implicit plea to research funders about the rules they impose on fellowship applications. Whilst having great sympathy for her own story, and those of postdoc B that she describes, I think the counter story needs to be told from the view of the organisation. I am sure there is a biological term describing the good of a collective society at the expense of the individual, be it an ant or whatever. There is an element of that organisational good versus the individual researcher’s fate going on here. So, apologies in advance to Jenny and all of those early and not-so-early career researchers who find themselves in horrible situations due to intransigent research funders, but I’m going to put the other side of the story and hope I am not too vilified.

Research funders want to fund the ‘best’, but the reality is there is no single metric to describe this. I note the emphasis on first author papers in the biological sciences as a key parameter in Jenny’s post; in the physical sciences I think this is less baldly used and there will be many additional factors which are (sub-)field specific. Nevertheless, judging what is ‘best’ is a tricky business to say the least. I will now give a little background not to URF’s (whose panel I have never sat on), but to the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships – also from the Royal Society – whose panel I chaired for 6 years. These were initially set up to fund women, specifically. Set up in 1994, it awarded fellowships to those who had maybe taken time out for a family or who had had other non-traditional career paths. It also aimed to provide flexible support for young women at a time when they might be thinking about starting a family, but hadn’t yet done so, so that they had the confidence to take the necessary time out (this was at a time when most fellowships weren’t very helpful about this) and not merely drop out completely because it all seemed just too difficult. By the time I took over as chair in (I think) 2001, the world had moved on. That a fellowship could be advertised only for women was regarded as legally dubious and over the next few years the eligibility criteria constantly changed – to everyone’s confusion – as the Royal Society tried to find ways of making the criteria clear, legal but (if possible) still conform to the original intention of the scheme. It simply hasn’t been possible to fulfil this latter, however. You cannot advertise a fellowship for a woman who is hoping to start a family in any watertight legal way (“you mean you thought you wanted a family when you applied in 2007, but by the end of the fellowship you’d changed your mind? Give us the money back!” – would hardly work). The law may or may not be an ass, but it makes things very tricky.

One year the Dorothy Hodgkin scheme had no eligibility criteria whatsoever other than early career (exactly what that was defined as at the time I can’t remember): the numbers went up massively and, on the physical sciences side, now had a very large proportion of men applying, fewer on the biological side. It was all but impossible to winnow that down ‘fairly’, based on the evidence we had in front of us, to the single figure number of fellowships we had to give out (applications to fellowships ratio I recall as being something of the order of 30:1). Did the ‘best’ win? Impossible to tell. The one consolation one always has – as an organisation, not as an individual – is that although the outcome has an element of luck in it, one can be sure that all those appointed were thoroughly deserving. The fact that another, let’s say 10%, would have been equally deserving is just depressing – for the organisation as well as the individual of course – but at least one knows the money has been well spent.  After that the Royal Society moved back to tighter criteria to try to make sense of the situation, which is where the current rubric of needing a ‘flexible working pattern’ comes in; it is a way of encouraging junior women to apply without being restrictive, and means that male parents are just as welcome (a topic people may feel strongly about one way or the other), or people with health problems, caring for others with health problems etc. It doesn’t fulfil its original objective perfectly, and maybe it shouldn’t, but it does at least go in something of the right direction and the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellows are predominantly, but not solely women. It is worth pointing out that changes to the scheme were not well received by the community; despite all the good intentions and legal necessity for the RS to act like this, people got cross that a simple ‘woman-only’ fellowship appeared to have been taken away and, I suspect, assumed the worst about the RS’s motivation.

For the URF’s you can imagine a similar situation. Here the restriction is on years’ experience. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and somewhere that is legally watertight which is why it is so hard to deal with the sorts of situations that Jenny described (it is possible some private funders feel less constrained in what they can do than organisations receiving public money). If you start making exceptions, based on whatever good intentions, you immediately run into problems. If you don’t have a limit on years’ experience, then the committees would be swamped even more than they currently are. The numbers applying are huge and, despite what one might anticipate and Jenny and the comments on her post indirectly imply, women appear to be having a slightly higher success rate than men currently. Whether this applies equally to women with and without children I have no idea, but URF rules make it straightforward for women to take time out to have children while holding a fellowship and also return to work part-time if they want. Many women do just that.

Given the immense amount of time spent on each application, by the applicant primarily of course, but also by the administrators of the scheme, the referees and the panel, widening the potential pool by relaxing criteria isn’t going to lead to a fairer let alone more cost-effective scheme. BIS, who are the primary funders of the fellowships I talk about here, want to see wise use of tax-payers’ money and removing all restrictions, say, for any fellowship scheme, would probably not be seen as wise whilst simultaneously creating an impossible burden of work which still wouldn’t resolve many of the issues that Jenny addresses. More applications inevitably will mean more randomness. As it is, trying to rank individuals who have variously (as in the Dorothy Hodgkin scheme) barely finished their PhD in comparison with those with a couple of postdocs under their belt is well-nigh impossible. Extend the eligible number of years further and the impossibility of realistically comparing apples and pears would just become even more obvious. This applies equally to the URF scheme. Would it be fairer? I don’t think so.

So, regrettably, however much one may sympathise with the plight of postdoc B, from the point of view of the organisation awarding the fellowships what is happening is not unreasonable. The competition rules are set to encourage a well-defined cohort who have the potential to be the scientific leaders of tomorrow.  As it is, the numbers of applications are huge and the workload on everyone involved in the decision-making process equally substantial. Injustices will inevitably be done, but probably not as systematically as Jenny implies: after all postdoc B would have been eligible to apply for a Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship at the end of her 2nd postdoc and got independence that way, rather than waiting till the end of the third one to aim for a URF. Let me assure the community of anxious postdocs out there, no funder wants to disadvantage any group, or be unfair or unreasonable in its judgements and that is why criteria are constantly tweaked to try to overcome any inadvertent pitfalls; any panel most certainly will factor in circumstances, including career breaks but also how adventurous an individual might have been in changing fields (relevant to postdoc A) and the planned research proposal, as a decision is reached. On the other hand, funders have to be pragmatic and set criteria which lead to manageable pools of applications. They know all individuals who make it through the process are worthy winners. They also know there will have been equally worthy individuals who lose out. No it isn’t fair, but it may be doing the best that can be done with the money available.



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73 Responses to Whoever Said Life Is Fair?

  1. cromercrox says:

    Great post. When anyone (especially politicians) mentions ‘fairness’ I immediately become suspicious. We are not small children, nor do we like being treated as such.

    I have an anecdote which is probably irrelevant, but here it is anyway. Many years ago, me and another (male) colleague went for a job in another organization. The post had been vacated by a woman who’d been on maternity leave. She had come back part-time, and then decided she wanted to leave after all.

    My colleague and I made it to the short list, but the job went to an insider, a person already in the organization. This was the right choice, as the person concerned had more relevant experience. But no sooner was the ink dry on the contract than the insider announced that she was pregnant and would be taking maternity leave. Life, eh? Kind gets you.

  2. rpg says:

    I don’t know why anyone should think a contrary position should get them kicked off OT…


    “The competition rules are set to encourage a well-defined cohort who have the potential to be the scientific leaders of tomorrow.”

    I’d like some evidence that the system we currently have is actually the best, and works, please.

  3. rpg says:

    PS sorry, should have expanded on that: I don’t think the argument is that the fact 8% of professors are women isn’t fair; it’s more that such a system is wrong (and broken).

    • Richard, where have I drawn an extrapolation from the current system of awarding fellowships to the number of women professors? You appear to be assuming that somehow women are being disadvantaged in the fellowships stakes – and the evidence does not show that. I’ve seen the stats from the RS in particular (though certainly there are many other funders whose stats I haven’t seen) and they don’t support your assumption.

      Not sure where you got your figures on profs from since the current figure is about 15% for women professors in biology, though it’s about 8% for physics and chemistry.

  4. rpg says:

    Um, if we’re talking about career progression then fellowship to chair extrapolation is surely justified. And yes, 8% in chemistry and physics–that’s what’s relevant to you, no? Not that doubling the figure lessens the strength of the argument.

    ” When anyone (especially politicians) mentions ‘fairness’ I immediately become suspicious. We are not small children, nor do we like being treated as such.”

    No, we’re not small children. Which means that when we see something is unfair, it is not enough to throw a tantrum: we actually have a duty to do something about it. Saying “oh well, life isn’t fair” is a childish abdication of responsibility.

  5. Thanks for your post, Athene. I, too, was saddened that you thought you might be kicked off of OT for disagreeing with some of its bloggers. I don’t really know what to think about this, except that you must not know us very well.

    Just as a framework, here are the most recent stats for STEM overall in UK academia:

    2,065 female lecturers (26.1 per cent)
    1,790 female senior researchers/lecturers (18.3 per cent)
    540 female professors (9.3 per cent)
    Source: UKRC, summarized nicely by the CaSE blog: http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/?p=4094

    I wholly agree that life isn’t fair. But I also think that identifying possible injustices, and stimulating the discussion of solutions, is a worthwhile thing to do, whereas wringing one’s hands and saying “life isn’t fair so we should just carry on with the system we have now” is not a satisfying response. The rules are made by the great and the good, the established and the tenured, so I think it behooves those of us who have not attained such heights to raise issues and ask the entirely legitimate questions, “Are there things we could do to make things fairer? Would making things fairer be too expensive, or is a goal of enriching diversity and valuing more those we have already trained at great expense worth a rethink?” Equating the raising of these issues in a balanced and polite way to “a child’s endless whine” is, in my opinion, a bit

    I don’t know what the stats are for success rates across disciplines for fellowships, but if you use the UKRC stats above as a proxy for academic success overall, it’s clear there is a problem somewhere. Fellowships are arguably one major route into that pipelines, so it’s worth at least having a look if part of the problem lies there. (It’s also clear that the problem intensifies the deeper women penetrate the halls of academia, which is likely to stem from other issues.) But my blogpost wasn’t meant to be about gender. In reality, I’m far more concerned with the valuing of youth over experience. Personally, I feel this is just as much of a shame.

    Meanwhile, I’m not completely convinced that committees couldn’t come up with ways of winnowing more candidates. I am in conversation with a few people who serve on such committees who feel that there are things that could be done but certain mindsets are too rigid (or lazy) to consider changing. Questioning whether the funding bodies truly are doing all they can to be fair and to consider the broadest possible applicant pool is not unreasonable. Evidence would be helpful in this regard.

    • Jenny, I am using HESA stats. One problem is that they are no longer collecting the data in a useful way by discipline, and there have been a lot of us trying to put pressure on HESA to change this (my latest figures are 2007-8 I think, but I would assume the numbers are going up). I am aware that UKRC stats haven’t always meshed with the figures I’ve seen, and it’s hard to know why sometimes (at one point they quoted a figure of 1% female profs in physics which is ludicrous).

      As I said in response to Richard (which seems to have got out of sync on the blog), I was trying to point out funders (well at least in my experience at the RS) think about these things an awful lot, and certainly are listening to the views of those at all levels. Clearly your friends have different experiences, but presumably with different funders. I was precisely trying to give you evidence to this effect from my own personal experience with the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships. Other people may have different and more depressing evidence to the contrary. But I feel very strongly it is important for your generation to know my generation take our responsibilities very seriously, and it is sad to see that you automatically appear to assume the opposite. That’s not to say debate isn’t healthy, but it has to be debate not just based on the presumption that us old farts are thoughtless.

      As for the comment about OT. That wasn’t entirely meant to be taken literally, but I knew that what I was writing was likely to stir up strong feelings – as it has.

  6. Come on Richard, you’re not thinking this through. Let me address your various mixed up points.

    Am I in favour of supporting women? Yes, rather obviously, wherever possible but not to the point of (illegal) positive discrimination.

    There are lots of routes that take people to professor without being a URF, including arrivals from abroad (even for British nationals, experience in other systems is far from uncommon).

    Did I say I support a system that is totally unfair? Obviously not.

    Do I believe it is possible to have a fellowship competion that is 100% fair? No, I don’t. You cannot compare people in a way that is completely quantified to give an absolute ranking; people who are deserving will lose out (never mind eligibility criteria) and there will never be enough money to support all the people one wants to. The whole point I was trying to make about the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships is that intense internal scrutiny went on behind the scenes to try to devise a fair and legal system. What we have is imperfect but it isn’t for want of trying or ‘abdication of responsibility’, as you so bluntly put it. Try rereading what I actually wrote, as opposed to what it is all too easy to feel about a system that hurts a lot of people. Do you think people sitting on panels enjoy knowing the difference the decisions they make can make all the difference to people’s lives? Believe me, we take our responsibilities very seriously.

    I knew when I wrote this post it would not be well received by those who are at this critical juncture in their lives. But I wanted to help you all understand a little bit about the difficulties that there are in making a system that is ‘fair’. Cromercrox presumably ‘got’ it.

  7. While I appreciate the absolute necessity to have eligibility criteria for certain fellowships, I think Jenny did make a good point about how a seemingly minor/arbitrary change in criteria can have a big effect on career prospects, especially if opportunities that one was hoping to pursue in the near future change without much warning.

    As a junior researcher looking to what may lay ahead, I do find the academic career structure puzzling. There seem to be a surfeit of PhD positions compared with the number of opportunities subsequently. It doesn’t seem as though ‘only the best survive’ but rather ‘only the best and the luckiest’, or sometimes ‘only the decent enough and the luckiest’. We have a duty to make ‘best use’ of public funds, and certainly excellence is very important, but the way that excellence is distributed across the career path is perhaps debatable. Sure, competition is important and resources are finite, but the current system runs the risk of losing a lot of good, expert people in order to keep training up lots of new inexpert people who have no guarantee of career security.

    In other areas, competition is fierce and the biggest accolades go to the most talented and tenacious. But a secure HEFCE funded post is not an Oscar, a five album contract, or a six figure corporate bonus, and while it’s possible to carry on as an average actor, singer or lawyer, it’s hard to find an outlet as a ‘jobbing researcher’. One has to ask whether the ‘prize’ of some degree of career stability in one’s 40s is worth the sacrifices throughout one’s 20s and 30s.

    Perhaps things could be improved if (i) there were regulations regarding the ratio of junior to senior positions in groups/departments to deter grant writers from keeping costings down by creating an unsustainable number of junior roles and (ii) reconsidering the shape of the pyramid (I rather like Jenny’s other suggestion about professionalising the postdoc path http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110302/full/471007a.html)

    In the mean time I shall just focus on doing my PhD, trying as hard as I can to optimise the chances that I will be able to carry on in academia while simultaneously making sure I am sufficiently employable in other sectors. It does rather feel that my chances of success are out of my hands.

  8. rpg says:

    My comment about abdication was actually for Henry.

    I think the bottom line is that there are severe, fundamental problems across the system, and using a single example—the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships—doesn’t change that. Yes, it’s great there’s something that works. There are undoubtedly people on the inside trying their best, just as their are people (as Henry has effectively said) who seem to be actively trying to destroy careers.

    But the fact remains–the system is broken, it is on the whole unfair; and saying “all you can do is the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt with” is a little bit defeatist (not to say patronizing).

  9. rpg says:

    *”There” are people. Dammit!

  10. Normally Distributed: you’re right that changing the rules can arbitrarily make a big difference to an individual overnight, but the alternative is never to change the rules at all which isn’t going to satisfy anyone. That is the trouble with any system where an individual can suffer even if overall there is an improvement in ‘fairness’. The debate about the pyramid structure is one that Jenny cares a lot about, as her posts show. It seems to me that the situation is worse in biomedical sciences compared with physical, for the precise reason there are more opportunities for early career researchers and so more who are going to end up frustrated as they try to climb that pyramid. I have been told that the recent changes to the Wellcome scheme have created an even harder hurdle after the first fellowship than before, and this has been said to impact particularly on women. But since I also understand this problem has been recognized then it may well be that they are – as I have indicated in my various other comments – listening and trying to work out if there is a better way of doing things. Let me say it again, funders are not complacent or hard-hearted. They are trying to do the best they can with limited funds. It is right that the ‘young’ (no ageism intended) remain angry and idealistic and may well assume that my generation are complacent and patronising (these two adjectives having already been tossed in my direction today), but it doesn’t mean that assumption is right.

    As I wrote before
    Postdocs need to think carefully about how to optimise their opportunities and seek out advice beyond their immediate circle, to ensure they are as well equipped to make decisions about their futures as possible, enabling them to take realistic control of the directions their lives are heading.
    so you are right to be weighing up the pros and cons of staying in academia or not. The trouble is, too many people do not think about this till rather late and there is no way that everyone who wants to stay on to become a research fellow and ultimately professor can. If the system is ‘tweaked’ as the EPSRC has just done, to slash 1000 PhD places it may ease the problem down the line but has understandably been greeted with outrage. That is no way to solve this particular problem!

    Richard, you are of course right to say that my knowledge of the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships does not mean I know about other systems. On the other hand, I have no reason either for thinking the bunch of people I was working with were exceptional in their way of thinking, so it is as good a piece of evidence I can give – or that you can currently give I suspect – for the underlying processes.

  11. rpg says:

    That’s not quite what I was saying. My point is that overall the system is injust, from a consumer’s perspective, and that your efforts/experience, welcome as they are, don’t change the overall experience.

  12. Pam says:

    Thank you for your interesting post. I am sorry that your attempt to explain hasn’t been better received!

  13. I knew when I wrote this post it would not be well received by those who are at this critical juncture in their lives. But I wanted to help you all understand a little bit about the difficulties that there are in making a system that is ‘fair’.

    There’s a difference between a post being “not well received” and having an honest difference of opinion. Speaking for myself, I fundamentally disagreed with three major points of your post:

    (1) That calling attention to a perceived injustice in a balanced way (as I hope my post was) is the equivalent of a child whining endlessly about a piece of cake;

    (2) That ‘life isn’t fair’ should be used as a carte blanche excuse to ignore specific injustices as they arise, and as a reason not to explore ways to make things fairer, even if they may already have been explored quire extensively by others;

    (3) That there is sufficient evidence, beyond your own experience, that “no funder wants to disadvantage any group, or be unfair or unreasonable in its judgements”. I’d say that there’s good evidence that funders have absolutely no problem with disadvantaging postdocs who take longer than on average 3-8 years to get on their feet. About issues to do with gender, we’d need to have more evidence, in particular the percentage of women who are eligible to apply to fellowships, and the percentage of these who do who get funded. In the absence of this, we are all of us – including me – speculating.

    I hope I made these points in a non-patronizing and respectful way. That is certainly they way they were intended to come across.

    I do agree with one of your points, which is that the majority of committees probably strive to be as fair as they can in austere conditions. I’d propose that one way to open up the competition to more people without unduly overburdening the selection committee would be to make it a two-stage process in all cases. If the first winnowing process is judged solely on the objectives of the project – say in a 3-4 page document, including a precis of track record – as opposed to a monstrous 40-page pdf with full economic costings that is the full application for many fellowships – it would be easier to narrow it down to a more workable pool for the fine details. (And it would save a lot of people a huge amount of needless work on both sides.) The RS does a two-step process, but many funders don’t. And the first step could be made more streamlined. The net result would be a wider net, but a brisker competition – which would sure be a good thing for the resulting science that does get funded.

    And just a note to Normally Distributed (great handle BTW): you’re spot on about how the RS rule change was particularly difficult because no one was warned in advance. Both I and number of my colleagues have been planning our long-term strategies based on the rules of the various bodies – I know at least three people who have done a third post-doc because they thought it could bolster their URF application – only to find that all dashed.

  14. cromercrox says:

    Athene wrote You cannot compare people in a way that is completely quantified to give an absolute ranking; people who are deserving will lose out (never mind eligibility criteria) and there will never be enough money to support all the people one wants to

    and also …

    I knew when I wrote this post it would not be well received by those who are at this critical juncture in their lives. But I wanted to help you all understand a little bit about the difficulties that there are in making a system that is ‘fair’. Cromercrox presumably ‘got’ it.

    Thank you. I am also, fortunately, not at this ‘critical juncture’, so perhaps can be more dispassionate.

    The fact is that life isn’t fair, and no matter how much one makes grandiose noises about one’s duty to change things, life will always be unfair. Whether, like Athene, you are judging the relative merits of candidates for a fellowship, or, like me, selecting manuscripts (or, as it may be, SF stories) for publication as papers in Your Favourite Etcetera, one pretty soon comes up against the hard fact that resources are finite, and that choices have to be made. These are very hard choices, not between Good and Bad (if only things were always that easy!) but between very fine degrees of excellence, in which case the choice must come down to some arbitrary selection criterion. This may be the number of years elapsed since a PhD, the H score of a researcher, or even the toss of a coin.

    The fact remains, however, that if someone wins, someone inevitably loses, and, because resources are finite, campaigning for a different set of winners always means a different set of losers, who will no doubt have very good reasons to complain that their application (or paper, or story) was not treated ‘fairly’. So, Richard, the system might be ‘broken’ for you, but no system that you can possibly imagine will be any more fixable.

    I remember a conversation I had in a bar with a young researcher who said that his grades and attainments were easily as good those of anyone else, but had lost out because of affirmative action. It might be a grand and fine thing to make things ‘fair’, but it didn’t seem at all fair to this individual, who, on his individual level, had every reason to feel discriminated against.

  15. cromercrox says:

    BTW – Athene – I would have thought that people are welcome to hold whatever views they want at OT. They let me in, after all, and I’m sure you and I would disagree about a lot of things. Richard let me join even though it’s a fact universally acknowledged that he has a face like a squashed tomato and couldn’t arm-wrestle the skin off a rice pudding.

  16. Henry, I’d point out that your journal does not put a restriction on who can submit a paper. I’m all for massive competition and for only a few getting chosen; my objection is to the often arbitrary restriction on who’s allowed to compete in the first place.

    • cromercrox says:

      Such as only allowing applications from women? Or people under 40?

      (runs away)

      • My post referred to not allowing applicants after a set number of postdoctoral years. This is the framework from which I’m basing my arguments, and on which I based the comment I addressed to you – so I don’t really understand your response. Journals judge papers on their own merits; this is the sort of fair competition I admire.

        • cromercrox says:

          I don’t think you read through my comment. Given that resources are finite, such that choices will always be based on some arbitrary criterion, there will always be winners and losers, and choosing a different set of winners always means that there will be a different set of losers.

          Perhaps the experience of grant-awarding bodies suggests that awarding grants to people after a set number of postdoctoral years is, overall, less productive in terms of research achieved and papers published, than were they to award their grants to people with less postdoctoral experience. Of course, there will always be extenuating circumstances in individual cases – career breaks to have families, time doing other things such as journal editing and working in industry – after all, we’re all individuals.

          But from the point of view of the grant-awarding body, it only has a certain amount of money, and has to make it go as far as possible. The question then arises why it chooses one particular value of N (where N is number-of-years-since-PhD) than another.

          I don’t know this, but I suspect it represents the best balance it can achieve between best possible bang per buck, and being as fair as they can to people whose value of N is higher than the median.

          At least you’re doing a kind of science that gets into the best journals and attracts lots of pharma and society funding. You just try working in any other kind of biology, or practically any discipline in physics. I have got to say it, but cell biologists as a breed are unbelievably narcissistic – in the great scheme of things, you’ve got jam on it.

          • I did read your comment. That’s not the comment I was replying to, above. I was replying to your “runs away” one which, despite the fact that it was obviously a joke, contained the hard-edged implication that I might actually be in favor of a system rigged in favor of older people or women – patently not true. Meanwhile, you didn’t answer the point I was making, which was about the presub inquiry. That was a shame.

            I also don’t think it’s helpful to say that biologists have loads more money than other disciplines so we can’t complain. Actually, we can. Because each system has its own systems of funding, and each is open to balanced criticism by the people being served by it.

  17. Jenny, it would be monstrous to compare dashing of career dreams with the loss of a slice of cake. Nor was that what I was trying to convey – simply that learning that life can be unfair is a lesson best learnt early, which was where the childhood experience fitted in. And in a way that (mis)reading of yours exactly exemplifies why I feel my post was not ‘well received’. Not in the sense that people are angry with me (though they may be), but in the sense the message I was trying to put across has not been received, not heard, despite the fact I tried to write it as clearly and sympathetically as I could. I was trying to step back and look at the big picture, not the personal, and that is likely to be difficult for someone like you in the midst of great anxiety.

    Nor was I trying to say one shouldn’t right injustices where they can be righted. But, apparent injustice for an individual is not the same thing as an unjust system. I hope Cromercrox’s elegant rebuttals may have helped by tackling things from a different perspective. You are caught up in a particular form of ‘injustice’ which is visible and has stopped you in your tracks, I would guess. But the system is trying to ‘solve’ a particular ‘problem’, that of distributing a finite (and never large enough) sum of money to the best possible people. The defence the RS would put up in this particular situation I would guess (I have no insider knowledge on this at all) is that after 8 years you can work out who has the potential to go on to be an internationally leading scientist fairly accurately. Imperfectly, but not too badly overall. If you increase the timespan by, say, 2 more years, you increase the pool substantially but probably the number of people who will subsequently be judged to be in that top echelon much less. So, by the law of diminishing returns, they have made their best judgement at a cut-off of 8 years. Again, no doubt not perfect, but the best they think they can do. You don’t like that decision, naturally enough, because it directly impacts on you. That doesn’t make it an unjust system. If you think that means the RS, and other funders, systematically disadvantage researchers who take more than 8 years to get on their feet you may be right. But the rationale for that would be, on average, those who do are the ones who will never get on their feet. Again, you would argue a flawed decision but one taken in good faith.

    To give you a parallel example in the context of grant funding. There has been a lot of discussion in the past about research council’s decisions regarding resubmissions of grants. Here I will cite my experience of BBSRC where it was clear that uninvited resubmissions rarely fared better a second time around from the first, so the decision was taken a while back that only invited resubmissions would be allowed, when specific feedback would be given on what would be likely to lead to future success (but with no guarantee). Now in this sentence note I wrote uninvited submissions rarely fared better. So, again, this was a decision taken to deal with the majority of cases, but which is likely to have disadvantaged the occassional grant, the law of diminishing returns again applied.

    The example I gave you from my own experience about the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships allows me to give very specific insight into that fellowship competition. The RS not only has a 2 stage process, but also does not require 40 page pdf’s. I cannot comment on other systems but in a way that was not the point of your original post or my response. I can say with certainty that a postdoc like A, who may have a lot of papers to their name but has not necessarily strayed far from their original PhD topic, is likely to have a question raised about their lack of adventure; I reiterate that your example B could have done a lot better for themselves if they had applied for a Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship at the end of their 2nd postdoc. So, although your post made things look very stark, actually the situation was greyer than you implied.

    If the whole system is broke, as Richard implies, this is a totally different issue from the one your post raised or that I tried to cover here.. That is the one you and I debated a few weeks back with David Willetts, but again not one we agree on in detail.

    By the way I did not say you had accused me of being patronising, but other comments did. I am sorry if you read my comment about being thrown off the OT site as an accusation, rather than a flippant remark equivalent to Henry’s ‘runs away’.

    I hope you, and other readers, will try to take a step back and think about the underlying messages, separate from the specific issue of how the sudden change of rules at the RS has affected your individual situation. I am glad you accept that panels try to do the best job they can in the unenviable situation of knowing that they are going to disappoint many people by their decisions.

    • I’m not sure it was a “misreading” – I wasn’t the only one who noticed your opening analogy and came to the same conclusion I did. As I said, I accept you didn’t mean it in a bad way, but the way it was written in juxtaposition to your reference to my post was pretty likely to make people draw the conclusion that I, Stephen (and others who emailed me about it) did. If a person makes a serious point, they don’t really want to hear the equivalent of “diddums” as the opener to a response.

      • Jenny, it clearly is a misreading if it’s not what I was trying to say. And it wasn’t. It is something that obviously was badly written, in so far as several people saw it the same way, but that’s a very different thing. I find it odd, though, with several intervening sentences moving the ideas on way beyond childhood (so it wasn’t a juxtaposition) that people should read it that way, and still do. As for diddums, I wouldn’t have bothered to spend a long time thinking how to express my views if all I wanted to say was diddums. I would have written a sentence or two as a comment on your original post. It was precisely because I wanted to write a serious response (and note I called it a response, not a rebuttal) that I took several hours to compose my post. You should have taken it as a compliment that indeed I was taking you seriously. Indeed, that I had alerted you to the intention to post by private email might also have been seen as a sign I was sensitive to the fact that it might not be entirely to your taste, rather than that I was consigning your ideas to ‘diddums’.

        In fact my post was not meant to be about the specifics of the particular criteria that you have fallen foul of with the RS. It was meant to be a much more general commentary on the impossibility of solving the problems of fairness. That so many of the comments have got hung up on the specifics, has diluted the message I had hoped to convey.

        • Misreading implies that the reader was at fault. Mis-writing is another issue – or “badly written”, as you put it. This is not the same thing. And it’s still up there at the top, and it’s still just as humiliating to me and to others in this situation (because, as you’ll note if you read the original post again, I specifically said it wasn’t about me, but about other, younger talented people in our cohort). Few will bother going down further where you say you didn’t mean it that way. Alerting me in private that you were going to disagree with a post doesn’t make that humiliation at your choice of simile any more comfortable.

          • It is quite clear many people have read all the way down by the enormous number of comments! No humiliation was intended, and I still find it odd that is how you have read it. Nevertheless if you do, I apologise, but (see comment below) I do think I had taken thought of how you might read it and stressed I had every sympathy for your position even though I didn’t agree with it; I certainly intended to convey that position. Perhaps if you want to tackle me further on this we should do it via email.

  18. Grant says:

    I have too much to say and have too much on my plate to write it properly before this discussion winds down, so bullet form notes. (Please try not misread me as being overly critical; I’m trying to suggest a middle ground that might provide a solution. I would try to write this up on my blog, but I have to admit part of me worries I’d never get a grant again if I did! All off-the-cuff with all the flaws that come with that.)

    Inflexible rules will always cut people on the fringes out; it’s the nature of hard-and-fast rules.

    Adaptable rules can sometimes help, *provided* they fit to the objectives of the policy. Trying to look for ‘fit’ between person and objectives.

    Granting bodies will want to span the gaps between awards and no doubt sincerely try.

    Two problems: proxies for the real objectives/criteria and inflexibility.

    – These rules ‘years since Ph.D.’ etc., strike me as a proxy for what the real objectives.

    – Demographics needed before set any policy (read: rules). Demographics show majority of researchers -> industry. Therefore *majority* of potential applicants are not being covered properly in these rules. (In practice most of the that majority aren’t interested in a return to academia but it perpetuates in-house awards, i.e. favouring academia, and doesn’t match modern research career demographics.)

    – What is objective? e.g. people in middle of academic career. What is that?: x number of years as an *academic*; why are years as non-academic being counted? E.g. grant I applied insisted my years as a consultant be counted as ‘academic’ – despite that I couldn’t possibly produce publications at same rate as academic whilst being a consultant (key assessment criteria). I opted to take shorter (fast start) grant w/ the risks to me that brought & the hard work it’d involve based on identifying a project that was excellent (IMHO) for this, but denied equal opportunity of *trying* (again, IMHO). [Also: unable to apply for new 5 year award, as I’d like to, through a x number of years since PhD rule their despite their and my objectives clearly being a good match.]

    – second problem: inflexible rules rather than ones that adapt to cover gaps. Try look at the people and their fit to the objectives, rather than ask people fit rigid rules?

    e.g. from old NZ unemployment benefit policy (long gone). Instead of either on or off benefit when get job, sliding scale trying to adapt to circumstance of whatever work they found. If don’t do this, people unable to get substantive jobs can think it’s easier / better for them to stay on benefit. Tries to adapt to individual circumstance within objective.

    Suggestions for academic grant. Hard. Perhaps offer lesser award for those varying from key application criteria, otherwise assess on project merit – i.e. those on fringes accept they’ll get a slightly lesser award, but able to get a foot (back) in the door. (This is exactly what I tried to do.) Cut-off if potential award would be too short, but most applicants would opt out themselves.

    Ensure the flexibility spans between the objectives of different grants to ensure there are no gaps that can’t be covered.

    Now maybe I should become an administrator. (Not!) Hehe 🙂

  19. BB says:

    I think the pertinent point may have been made already – but is there actually any evidence that people become less likely to become world leading the more post doc positions they have held?

    There is a an implicit ‘understanding’ in science that younger and less experienced trumps older and more experienced. I personally dont understand that.

    In my world its very easy to compare a youngster with fewer publications to an oldster with lots, I mean why wouldnt you give a fellowship to the person with the most experience and more extensive credentials? It also means that if you want to cut down your application number it would be more appropriate to increase the lower end and make the upper end limitless ie. at least 2 post doc positions/at least 5 years experience.

    By doing this you would only exclude a young potential world beater for a short while, while they get an extra few years experience, rather than the current system which throws people onto the slag heap with no return.

    I guess what I am saying boils down to trying to give fellowships to the people with the best track record with no modifiers. The unfairness comes from giving some (large) arbitrary boost to people simply for being young. Lets have ‘the best’ not ‘the best given their age’ – this isn’t reality TV after all.

    I realise you can extend this argument to grant funding in which case I am forced to admit that I believe the funding should go to the best applicants with no modifier for being a new investigator for instance. Why bet on a new untried person in favour of a tried and tested team that have delivered in the past? Of course if you could possibly separate who has ‘the best idea for research’ from who has ‘written the best grant’ the playing field would be somewhat more even in the first place (yes I know Im just a bitter failure).

  20. deevybee says:

    Like Athene, I have sat on committees that evaluate postdoc fellowships and I can only support what she says. When you have a heap of 50 applications in front of you and know that you can recommend 5 of them to go forward to the next stage and only half of those will get funded, the last thing you want to see is broadened criteria. Especially if, as typically is the case, in the first pass through the applications you reckon around 20 of them are excellent proposals you’d really like to see funded. You then have to go through those twenty trying to sift out the ones that are stellar. In the past, there were age cutoffs that disadvantaged women, but UK funders are now very sensitive to that and this issue is no longer about gender. It’s about whether someone who’s had several years postdoc experience should have the same opportunities to get funding as someone who’s had little or no postdoc opportunities. That is the stark choice. I think it’s fairer to divide things up to give more people a chance of some postdoc funding, rather than to give fewer people longer terms of such funding. But there’s no question that this leads to tough situations, especially if you work in a field where it takes a few years to carry out and publish a project.
    And I agree with Jenny that any changes of criteria should be announced well in advance so that people don’t suddenly find the rug pulled from beneath their feet.
    This is probably very discipline-dependent, but in my field the advice to someone in postdoc B’s position would be to try for a teaching job that gave opportunities for research. It need not be career death, and it can be great for students to be taught by someone who is research active. However, that depends of course on there actually being teaching jobs – and on the research not requiring specific expensive resources.
    But overall, the point is that being a funder at present is rather like being a relief agency in the midst of a famine when there isn’t enough food to go round and you have to decide who to give it to.

  21. cromercrox says:

    But overall, the point is that being a funder at present is rather like being a relief agency in the midst of a famine when there isn’t enough food to go round and you have to decide who to give it to

    I think it’s always been like that, and always will be so long as resources are finite.

  22. Deevybee, I’m glad to find your experience is the same as mine and lead to the same views. It is sadly but understandably the case that the comments divide up into those who have been on the ‘giving’ end of the system, and who’ve seen the problems in action, and those at the ‘receiving’ end who can merely see apparent unfairness. The fundamental problem – be it in fellowships or research grants or faculty positions or whatever – is that more people are chasing whatever is on offer than can possibly be made available.

    The central point I wanted to make was that there is no way the system can be absolutely fair. I wasn’t trying to defend any particular decision that has been made about seniority cut-off’s or whatever, but in practice sifting out the ‘stellar’ from the merely excellent is fantastically difficult and can never be made absolute, as Deevybee says. If, as BB suggests you just give fellowships to the ‘best’ you are up against the fact that best is not actually an absolute that means anything for all kinds of contextual reasons (sub-fields are different in rate of paper output, to give a specific if not necessarily helpful example), and career path does matter in terms of being able to demonstrate excellence, as Jenny’s original post pointed out, because different situations give you different opportunities. The evidence that BB wants about long-term postdocs not progressing to be international leaders is hard to come by, because of the fact cut-off’s do take place. However, I think the general view (of those on the committees) would be someone who has, apparently happily, taken postdoc after postdoc probably lacks the creative spark to go off and be an independent leader. The problem is really it is impossible to identify those who have done this unhappily because they can’t find any other option to allow them to stay in science. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the case there are people who love doing research and don’t necessarily want to lead a team and those are intended to be the ones excluded, of course plus the ones who genuinely aren’t suited for leadership roles. The system isn’t perfect. I would reiterate, even with a window of only 5 years as in the URF competition, you are going to be making comparisons of people at very different stages and this also makes any absolute ‘best’ a meaningless term.

    Grant wanted more flexibility. However, I think the flexibility he wanted would in practice be illegal. You cannot vary the criteria for the few and not for all, however attractive that may look. You are just setting yourself up for legal challenges. The issue over years in industry is an interesting one. I suspect the view would be that you may not get papers but you get substantial experience which is why it is being included. However, the RS certainly has run schemes specifically for industrialists (don’t remember the details), so in their specific case they might argue that such people are covered by other schemes. As for spreading the money more thinly, let me return to the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships. These are intended for early career researchers (in general before they may be eligible for a URF). Initially they were for 3 years, now they run for 4. There has been a lot of pressure to increase the duration even further to 5 years, because shorter periods make it difficult to take on PhD students etc. Any increase in duration merely reduces the already small number that can be offered, but the pressure – from those who are awarded them and want that extra year – is very much not to spread the money more thinly to benefit a greater number of individuals. So far the RS has resisted this pressure as they want to make as many available as possible. So here, we have yet a different tension. It is impossible to square all the interlocking circles to satisfy everyone, with the best will in the world.

    I will just return to Jenny’s original point about the switch from number of postdocs to number of years’ experience. On reflection, I wonder if the reason for the change is that actually a postdoc position is not for a defined period. The switch may have been an attempt to level this particular playing field by recognizing that a postdoc can, in some instances, only be of a year’s duration (eg on a pump-priming grant or if someone comes in to replace a previous postdoc on a grant) and certainly is often for less than 3 years. In that case, in theory three postdocs might amount to only 3 years’ experience. By using actual duration as the criterion, attempts may have been made to remove this particular inequity – thereby accidentally introducing the problem that has now hit Jenny. It looks like it’s unfair, but may be fairer on a different part of the cohort.

  23. I think it might be interesting, and possibly get closer to the heart of the matter, to look at what kind of hard criteria might be used to winnow applications. I don’t think there’s any argument that there will be many and that there needs to be some algorithmic approach to reducing them. It seems to me that the core of the argument is around what kind of criterion would be more fair (and indeed how you might tell that).

    Some choices along with obvious disadvantages. The question is whether any of these, or any others would be more fair?

    * Limited number of years post-PhD: Disadvantages career breaks, may advantage those with longer PhD programmes

    * Limited number of postdocs: What is a postdoc these days? What about people who’ve spent time in industry?

    * Minimum CV requirement (e.g. number of papers): Obvious issues across disciplines and domains. Probable discrimination against those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    * Minimum number of career years remaining: Straw man as an inverse to the time post-PhD. Ensure that the investment in career advancement has time to bear maximum fruit. On the other hand, who knows how long we’ll be working for or if we’ll ever see our pensions…

    * Personal introduction: My understanding is that this used to be a big part of the URF, you needed a fellow to support your application. Likely to lead to concentration in the institutions that are already well off. Some might see this as a good thing.

    * Others? Citizenship requirements? Residency? First degree grade? Evidence of public engagement? Minimum number of comments on blog posts…?

  24. Matt Cliff says:

    The project grant system tries to fund what is best, and has no such limiting criteria. Surely you should only assess who has the best project for fellowship awards, and all other data should be secondary. For mid-career fellowships, surely the only criteria should be:
    1) are you a PI now?
    2) have you applied to this scheme before with this project?
    if no to both, you are eligible. Track record and years post-doc should surely be only be taken into account by panel in the latter stages. Point 2 will remove serial applicants.
    Most post-doc “whinges” would be removed by having a widely available non-PI career path.

  25. Stephen says:

    This has been an interesting though somewhat painful comment thread.

    Athene’s point, I think, is reasonably well made – that committees are doing their best in circumstances that will always be difficult. The opening pre-amble, though clearly not intended to offend, was somewhat clumsy, however, given that there was an immediately following link to Jenny’s post.

    But on the key issues, I wonder if the committees – at the RS or wherever – really are doing their best. Athene’s defence, re-stated in one of her comments, seems couched in too many caveats to be wholly convincing:

    The defence the RS would put up in this particular situation I would guess (I have no insider knowledge on this at all) is that after 8 years you can work out who has the potential to go on to be an internationally leading scientist fairly accurately. Imperfectly, but not too badly overall. If you increase the timespan by, say, 2 more years, you increase the pool substantially but probably the number of people who will subsequently be judged to be in that top echelon much less. So, by the law of diminishing returns, they have made their best judgement at a cut-off of 8 years. Again, no doubt not perfect, but the best they think they can do. You don’t like that decision, naturally enough, because it directly impacts on you. That doesn’t make it an unjust system. If you think that means the RS, and other funders, systematically disadvantage researchers who take more than 8 years to get on their feet you may be right. But the rationale for that would be, on average, those who do are the ones who will never get on their feet. Again, you would argue a flawed decision but one taken in good faith.

    The policy of applying limitations appears practical to a degree but I agree with Jenny that it is always worth reviewing these things. Just before my holiday I was interviewing applicants for an administrative post in our undergraduate office. There was no question of applying a criterion of age or experience to their right to apply. And yet we do this to early or mid-career scientists. The argument that to do otherwise would be an administrative headache has some merit but, even if the returns are diminishing, the cut-off is arbitrary. Why not try to devise a selection method that throws the net wide, so as to capture the most talented, whatever their prior experience? Is it beyond our wit?

  26. cromercrox says:

    Why not try to devise a selection method that throws the net wide, so as to capture the most talented, whatever their prior experience? Is it beyond our wit?

    I think Athene’s answered that – trying to measure ‘talent’ is as difficult as lassooing clouds or nailing the proverbial jelly to the ceiling.

    • Stephen says:

      I didn’t mean that the winnowing would be easy or easier – no-one here disputes that. My argument was against the arbitrary nature of the cut-offs that are applied to applicants, for which I see some practical arguments have been made. I still think that with the right mechanisms in place the funding schemes described above could be as fair as the process of hiring administrators. I make no case for absolute fairness – a Platonic ideal that is impossible to realise in practice.

    • Another straw man for you. If it’s challenging to determine quality and the burden of attempting to rank order is also a problem [which I agree it is] then surely the fair thing here is to agree a first pass cut off and then simply choose at random? Relatively cheap to do, its about as fair as you can get and it stops the pretence that we can really make those fine decisions on whether this one is slightly better than that one or not.

      • cromercrox says:

        Seems like a good solution. It would of course remove any pretence that the process isn’t a lottery.

        • Which is why I’m so keen on this kind of approach. I’d be interested in Athene or Deevybee’s view on whether there is any chance of it being politically acceptable. I’ve sat on similar panels and part of the rhetoric has to be “its tough but we’ve identified the best science/people/papers as winners”

  27. Grant says:

    Grant wanted more flexibility. However, I think the flexibility he wanted would in practice be illegal. You cannot vary the criteria for the few and not for all

    I wasn’t suggesting this *at all* – ! I’ll try find time later to make it clearer.

  28. Stephen, the section of one of my responses you quote is hedged in caveats because I’m speculating. I can talk on firm ground about the Dorothy Hodgkin competition because I have first hand knowledge. I can’t do the same for the URF’s because I haven’t been involved, I don’t have evidence one way or the other. I remain convinced, though, because of the way things operate at the RS that my basic contention is correct. I also stand by the law of diminishing returns applying. Expanding the criteria might make people feel better because they weren’t ruled ineligible, but I am not convinced it would lead to better outcomes only even more disappointed people. Would that really help?

    OK, Grant, explain how flexible criteria can be evenly and transparently applied, because that wasn’t how it read to me, but bullet points are hard to interpret.

    Thanks CromerCrox, I am glad my views make sense to a few old hands who’ve seen too many similar situations not to know that there will always be arbitrary criteria somewhere causing someone angst or worse. Sometimes in hiring for, say, administrative posts the cut-off works the other way and people with fewer years experience are excluded, formally or not, in comparision with those more with more years under their belt. Again, there is logic in that choice but it is still making assumptions about the average competencies of people with different amounts of experience that might or might not be valid in a particular case. I am not sure having such implicit criteria is any more preferable than explicit ones, but it does indeed mean everyone can apply even if a certain group of them are then turned down fairly automatically.

    • cromercrox says:

      Thank you – it’s appreciated. My old hands are currently covered in blue paint, but I’m sure it’ll come off.

  29. Stephen says:

    The criteria for our UG administrators were set put explicitly in the job description published with the advert. I agree with you, Athene, that absolute fairness is not attainable. Still think we may be able to do a tad better by removing arbitrary cut-offs.

    Plus, my hands are very nearly as old as Henry’s… 😉

  30. Parietal says:

    I’m a early/mid career researcher (4yrs lectureship) and I agree with Athene’s post. Consider 2 fellowship schemes – scheme A has a hard cutoff of 5 years postdoc, while scheme B has no time limits. Under scheme A, fellowships are likely to go to those with 4.5 yrs postdoc, and those who don’t make it at that stage will have to pursue their career elsewhere – maybe in industry or maybe in a research&teaching post. Those might not be the postdoc dream, but they have stability and are not a bad option. Under scheme B, fellowships might be going to those with 7 or even 10 years postdoc. Which raises the bar for everyone and increases the duration of the horribly uncertain postdoc years for everyone. And that is not necessarily good for women who want the stability of a fellowship or permanent job before starting a family. So I think there can be arguments for scheme A even from an early-career point of view.

    • Parietal, I’m delighted to find someone who isn’t going to be classed as over the hill agreeing with me. It has troubled me this very clear split in the views by the demographics of the commenters. However, it has to be said you have a lectureship and so may be regarded as ‘senior’ by some. Anyhow, thank you for putting the argument around years’ experience so clearlry and succinctly. I hope you are able to convince others. Apologies, this sat in the moderation queue a while, but I am away from Cambridge and struggling to keep up with the steady stream of interesting comments.

  31. Lots of great comments. I’m exerting my prerogative as the person who started this conversation to move the ball back the Mind The Gap for the next round, where I’ve extracted three issues for further scrutiny. Do have a look:

  32. Grant says:

    OK, Grant, explain how flexible criteria can be evenly and transparently applied

    Maybe your words read too harshly to me on the printed page, so to speak, but, please, I am not some selfish kid writing ignorantly something that suits them only. I am trying to express a nascent idea, and would appreciate some patience and attempt to understand, rather than what to me reads as sarcasm. I’m very busy writing a book chapter that I’m a little behind on so I don’t have time for a for a finely executed mini-essay, let along copy-editing. I’m trying to offer some middle ground that might be worth looking at (but, then again, may not).

    That you think flexible criteria have to be uneven, to me confirms that you have some different idea. Perhaps you’re putting my concept through a different framework as it were.

    • Goodness, how did what I write convey I thought you were a selfish kid! No, no, that wasn’t my intention, how can things be so misinterpreted. All I was trying to say was that how your original bullet points read, sounded to me as if you wanted someone, say Jenny, to be able to ring up and say here are the reasons why the criteria shouldn’t apply to me, and the funder would say they understand, please feel free to apply – problem solved. That I believe would be illegal, because – however attractive it may be – if the rules are changed for one they would have to change for all. Otherwise another postdoc, finding Jenny had been allowed to apply after all and they hadn’t, would be able to seek legal recourse (at least I think that is correct). If that isn’t what you meant by flexibility please amplify when you have time.

      • Grant says:

        to be able to ring up and say here are the reasons why the criteria shouldn’t apply to me, and the funder would say they understand, please feel free to apply – problem solved

        No offense, but I’m not sure how you get that from what I wrote! I didn’t write that applicants should ring in and plea-bargain their case to ‘vary’ the criteria – I’d never suggest it.

        I have to admit I’m reluctant to elaborate. Not meaning to pike out, but because I suspect that is hard to convey (I’ve limited time), may be hard to do in practice (as I wrote earlier) and mostly as I’m a bit leery of creating a fuss .

        For what it’s worth I had started a reply picking up from Stephen’s thought for several reasons but haven’t found time to finish it and send it in as I had similar thoughts to Stephen as I was writing and I’m thinking it’s closer to what I was after in the bigger scheme of things.

        I really only offered adaptable criteria as a loose thought in the spirit of brainstorming that Jennifer refers to in her latest post; it’s not mean to be well-formed or definitive. So excuse me for rushing this off-the-cuff nonsense below – I’m sure it’s an incomprehensible mess :-/

        I was meaning that the criteria themselves—the written eligibility rules that apply to the same to everyone, not the committee implementing the criteria—should be flexible, able to accommodate different circumstances, taking my cue from Jennifer’s remarks about ages and x number of years. Certainly not saying that the committee should be open to ‘making exceptions’!

        Hence my analogy to a particular approach to unemployment benefit policy; they set up a structure that tried to avoid people falling through gaps that might be present if rigid pre-emptive rules were set. Their objectives were to get people back into work. Part-time work might lead to full-time. If the criteria were ‘no benefit if you’re working, how ever many hours’, beneficiaries would be—understandably—reluctant to reduce their income to take on a part-time job. In this case, it’s fairly easy: scale the benefit against how many hours are worked. The point is that hard-and-fast rules can block the objective sought achieved through not acknowledging that not everyone fits the “standard”, in this case full-time employment.

        I do think it wouldn’t be easy, partly why I suspect it’s not worth overdoing looking at it.

        I think eligibility criteria and assessment need to not trip each-other up. Tying to tease them apart, the former addresses who the award is aimed at (career step, etc), the latter at sorting out who are the better candidates. If you start using the former to pre-select candidates, then I’m pretty sure you’ll also start tossing out some of the candidates that the award is actually trying to find because it’ll be trying to create a ‘standard model client’ instead of being focused on the ultimate objective (which I’d have thought isn’t quite ‘the best person’, but is the best project including the people involved and their ‘fit’ to the project – how well they’d be able to do it, etc; this is where industry offers more than ‘mere’ experience, but also skills, approaches, etc., that academics may not have.)

  33. cromercrox says:

    Sometimes granting bodies have the reverse problem – they have money that they have to disperse, because the Charities Commission says they must, and they simply can’t find suitable applicants. Many years ago when the world was young I served on the grants committee of an ancient and venereal venerable academic body, which had been, over centuries, in receipt of all sorts of bequests with very specific strings attached. One was a fund specifically to further the study of British water beetles (I swear I am not making it up); another was reserved for the use of second sons of curates from Rutland (OK, that one I might have exaggerated only slightly.) Some of these funds had quite tidy sums in them for the want of applicants, and what with the Charities Commission breathing down our necks to make sure we weren’t ferreting money away to gather interest, it was quite a problem. Trying to change these bequests was a legal minefield. I might be wrong – memory not being what it was – but I wouldn’t be surprised if some learned societies turn down bequests whose covenants are too restrictive.

    • I’ve heard anecdotally this is getting to be quite a serious problem in the US for a range of medical charities who a) don’t have the publicity machine to reach researchers and b) have rather specific requirements. This is a real issue with direct and bequeath funding, particularly where someone wants to “find the cure” for a specific disease.

      Actually I’ve seen a number of grant schemes in the UK from the main funders recently that have had such restrictions on them that after looking into it we decided not to apply – even tho it would have been a slam dunk case – because discharging the grant as required would have been more work than it was worth. The restrictions were well meaning in their aim just not really thought through – I’m not sure in the end whether they got enough applications to proceed.

  34. Is it too late for me to switch to the beetle field? 😉

  35. Sarah says:

    As a senior postdoc in a field that’s losing funding at a frightening rate it’s tempting to cry foul of The System. It’s always good to hear from more senior scientists who are involved in the fellowship selections, and I do agree with your arguments that the System is imperfect but not “corrupt”. Re. the Dorothy Hodgkin, I welcome that it’s been opened up to both genders – after all, many male scientists are parents too, and their flexible working arrangements can equally help their scientist-partner’s careers. But yes, it’s controversial.

    It would however be nice to see some initiatives (by research councils or universities) that help provide longer-term job security or career path to researchers from an earlier stage. I’m not sure what form those would take – 10-year fellowships, or fellowships with a longer-term career progression structure, multi-institute fellowships….. Building a career just feels like wandering round in the dark much of the time! I also think that the constant pressure of re-applying for jobs is not conducive to doing really innovative, high-risk/high-gain, type research.

  36. Steve Caplan says:

    Having read both Athene’s and Jenny’s great posts and the threads from the two blogs, I’ve decided to post some thoughts of my own as a comment on both threads.
    Rather than comment specifically or reply to specific points, I’ll just make a few of my own.

    First, there is certainly no argument that “life isn’t fair.” This goes for just about anything, including genes for disease and health, being born to a family with means to support the children as opposed to a family suffering from famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Extending the “life isn’t fair” into science careers, we can note that a naïve student who chooses a bad lab for her/his Ph.D research will have a hard time, if ever, recovering from this disadvantaged start. He/she will not publish well, will get poor training, and will be unlikely to get a post-doctoral position in a top quality lab to show the productivity and ingenuity needed in today’s world for a faculty position. Of course there are exceptions, but they are few and far in between.

    I currently serve on two separate review committees: At NIH, my committee deals exclusively with student and post-doctoral trainee fellowships, whereas at the American Heart Association, I chair a committee which deals with all grants and fellowships, from student, post-doc, transitional and investigator grants.

    This means that I personally review over 50 fellowships (and/or grants)/year, and am exposed to many more.

    The criteria for all training grants are similar, no matter the mechanism: for example for post-docs, there is a very high percentage of the score that is given directly for the sponsor/mentor. Without reading a word of the grant, or looking at the applicant’s own CV and publications, the fate of an application can already be sealed. If the mentor lacks funding, or lacks a good track record in publications and in mentorship (graduating or generating active scientists), the fellowship will already be damaged beyond repair. Yes, reviewers are wise enough to realize that a PI/sponsor with a lab for 7 years will not have the same extensive record as a successful PI after 20 years. Those considerations are taken into account.

    The next important thing is the applicant. Again, for a post-doctoral fellowship, publications are crucial, because as Shakespeare said, “they are the measure of all things.” So a post-doc who published only a single publication in a 5-6 year Ph.D. in a so-so journal will be disadvantaged. A post-doc with 2 good publications in that time frame will be competitive if all else is good, whereas a post-doc with 4 excellent papers and 3 more co-author papers from the Ph.D. is already at a strong advantage before the application is even looked at. Now such a very strong applicant could offset a so-so mentor, and a poorly written application can harm even such a highly successful applicant. But that’s the way things work.

    One can argue about whether these are the correct criteria—whether they identify the best scientists. One can even argue “does it matter?” After all, in these cases (unlike the ones described by Jenny that make or break a career), a sponsor needs to show he has alternative funding for the applicant. And if the sponsor already has other funding to support the applicant, in the long run does it even matter for the applicant’s career if she/he gets the award? Perhaps—but also perhaps not.

    Are there considerations for maternity leave and so-called “non-traditional career paths.” Yes, but again, perhaps not enough. On the other hand, unlike from what I understand from my fellow bloggers in the UK, institutions in the US generally allow 6-12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Not a year.

    What is a fair time? I don’t know. My spouse had 2 months paid leave as a post-doc at NIH, and we took a third (unpaid) month to visit her family in Israel. As an employer now, my own personnel receive 2 months of paid leave from the university (but of course, paid for from my research grants). I honestly don’t know how I would feel if over a 5-6 year period I had to pay a technician 3 years of pay for 3 maternity leaves. 2-3 months seem manageable (and necessary). But if it were a full year, despite priding myself on fairness and “gender-blindness,” when hiring I don’t know if thoughts would creep up about whether it would be less risky to hire a male vs female for a position. Especially if my tenure and career were riding on it.

    Back to the review process; I’m not implying that it is perfect here in the US. As a reviewer, I struggle as much as anyone else with the disappointments of my own grant applications. I do, however, feel that in general there is a willingness to discuss each and every one of the applications on an individual basis. This means that cases where there was a personal family tragedy, health issues, even divorce and/or depression are very carefully weighed and considered. Even cases where a sponsor moved to a new institution in the midst of a student’s Ph.D., or tragically died.

    Less tragic instances are also considered. A talented person who decides to return from an attempt to become integrated in industry. Two maternity leaves in the course of a Ph.D. And so on.

    In summary, I think an applicant with a strong publication record and the right pedigree who puts together a decent proposal is in excellent shape for obtaining an award. However, despite the stiff competition, I do believe (at least in the US system) that there is enough flexibility to consider and fund outstanding applicants who don’t fit into the generic pattern.

    How do we ever know what’s the best career path to take? It’s extremely tough, and there’s no golden rule. In a seminar that I attended where a prize was awarded to the late Judah Folkman in the 1990s, he told the story of a post-doc in his lab who worked for 7 years trying to purify an angiogenesis factor from human feces. He explained that there is a very fine line between persevering and being pig-headed. In this case the post-doc identified the factor, got a “Cell” paper under his belt (no pun intended), and earned his record in history as a highly determined and successful post-doc. In many other cases, and ones that are not so well recorded, such post-docs might not identify the factor and go down in history as obstinate and pig-headed.

  37. Steve, useful summary thanks. Teases out many of the challenges about trying to have a simple solution. Yes, the situation about maternity leave is very different here, to the benefit of the many women who feel 2 months is not enough time off. The grant funders provide much of the necessary funding (for 6 months anyhow), so that aspect is easier too. But it is the practicalities of the gap that may cause trouble, gettiing out of touch and the field moving on – that sort of thing. I feel that if a postdoc wants, with the internet keeping up with papers should be quite viable, but not everyone wants to do that (or do what I did, in writing a lecture course with a 6 week old baby on my shoulder, fairly literally!).

    Jenny, having now had a chance to read your post (and I’ve commented briefly there), I note you say nothing about my comments above about how the postdoc A/postdoc B choice really isn’t as black and white as you make it. I do feel your examples are too stark, and the reality is much more nuanced. Which is important for the whole tenor of your concerns. Also, having reread what I wrote in my own post, when I make a statement like
    Whilst having great sympathy for her own story, and those of postdoc B that she describes and other similar remarks, I do think saying this amounts to ‘diddums’ is an unreasonable and unnecessary caricature of my post.

  38. If you don’t see how the child’s endless whine simile is a humiliating pat on the head and possibly an excessive caricature of its own, I’m afraid I’m at a loss to explain it further; I suggest we draw a line under it. You’ve admitted that it was badly written, so let’s move on from that.

    Meanwhile, postdoc B (who is actually based on a real person) did not go for the DHF because it’s specifically earmarked for people who want to work flexibly and she wanted to work full time. She was also advised by her mentor (someone familiar with various fellowship workings) that she’d stand a better chance getting more experience/papers before applying for a prestigious fellowship, as re-appliers don’t usually fare well. She decided to focus on the URF, which I don’t think is an unreasonable game-plan considering that only hindsight is 20:20. She can’t go for a lectureship now because, aside for the fact that one hasn’t been advertised in her field in the past 12 months, her next pregnancy is showing, so she’s going to try the ERC – a long shot, but the last option.

    • Postdoc B was ill advised. It is important to realise there is a difference between flexible working and part-time working. A mother (or indeed a father) with a young child who says they want the ability to care for their child as and when eg take time off at short notice due to ill health, would meet the criteria while still working full time. Hence your colleague would have been well placed and it is sad this information was not made available to her.

  39. deevybee says:

    Athene and Jenny – It’s distressing to see a debate about funding issues has got sidetracked by upset over A’s introductory sentences. Can I suggest, Athene, that you just delete at least the first two sentences, as, however you intended it, it clearly is coming across as inappropriate in tone, both to Jenny and to some other readers. I think it’s distracting everyone from the important issues about allocation of limited research funds.

    • Deevybee, although that might seem a neat solution I fear it would make many of these comments extremely confusing and unhelpful to latecomers to the post, so I don’t think it would work. I tried to put up a formal apology to Jenny for inadvertent offence caused. Unfortunately, now I am somewhere (yes, the RS) with robust wifi – I have been travelling and have found it very hard to keep up with the comments – it looks like a flakey connection early this morning means that that and some other responses I made have vanished. So I’ll say it again, I apologise if Jenny feels I ‘humiliated’ her; not what I set out to do in any sense. I hope Jenny and others have gathered that the connection they appear to have made, by missing out a few lines of my text mentally in the first paragraph, was not intended. That life isn’t fair, and nor are fellowship competitions however hard people try, was what I was trying to get across, no side-swipe at individuals. Regular readers of my blog – and I hope that includes Jenny – ought to have a better idea of my character than that from the things I write about regularly. I fear there may be elements of demonising the establishment figure here: a sense of believing that as I am a professor I can neither be trusted nor to understand other people’s pain. I find it sad – or as Deevybee says, distressing – that a well-intentioned discussion post can have got hijacked so that the important messages get lost, or at least diluted. But I hope ultimately the discussion – and the continuing one on Jenny’s post – have been useful. In haste as ever, so no doubt there are nuances I’ve got wrong in this too…..

      • MGG says:

        I am a post-doc with about 7.5 years of post-doctoral training, but it is 10 years after my PhD. I had an excellent opportunity immediately after my PhD and secured a tenure-leading position, I worked for 3 years here (with a 5 month maternity break a year into this). I left this position as I wasn’t as excited about the area of work it was leading to and I did not want to ‘settle down’ yet, but wanted to explore the world.
        Today, many papers later and having generated enough reagents to carry forward my PI’s research for another decade or more, I find myself jobless and am wondering about the ‘rightness’ of the paths I took at each cross-road.

        I still love research, having consciously chosen it over a clinical career and I will try my best to continue in academia and work towards an independent position. Perhaps I am pig-headed in hoping that things would work out for me in academia despite all odds, but this is a risk I am willing to take.
        In this context, I strongly agree with Athene Donald’s statement that life is indeed quite unfair. This is the truth. In science, a large % of people who don’t make it are not necessarily any less brilliant than people who make it–they are just not lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It is very sad that science seems to not care for people with experience. Though it is very bad for us the people involved, it is equally bad for science as it loses the perspective and view-points of us old post-docs. The less said the better about all the wasted resources in training us!

        I am inspired by Athene’s post about how unplanned her career-path was and I really appreciate all her advice about finding mentors whereever one can. I love OT and the bloggers here and their viewpoints. Afterall, if we agreed with everyone else, how boring life would be. And I guess, everyone’s goal is to improve things in their own small (or big) ways and thank you all for that.

  40. That’s very kind, but please don’t do it on my account. I’m pretty thick-skinned, and was only momentarily distressed.

    And just to confirm, I’m not upset at Athene or anyone else, and am still finding this a great debate. Was hoping, though, on the other thread, to get some concrete ideas for how to make the assessment more streamlined or how to revisit criteria to make them more flexible to individual happenstance.

  41. Sarah Burge says:

    Another one who agrees with Parietal and Athene. I think there’s an awful lot of post-docs out there who need to be more realistic about their future goals. It’s not something restricted to science either – just look at the legal profession, or medicine, for instance. Both of those fields are full of driven, intelligent people, yet they don’t all get to be QCs or top consultants.

    After applying for several fellowships, I took stock and realized I didn’t want to be spending the next n years of my 30’s chasing the tenuous possibility of independent funding, which was dependent on luck as well as the quality of my work. So I got out. Admittedly I have landed on my feet and am now running my own group in an academic scientific institute – not tenured, but also without any of the burden that entails.

    If post-docs are going to try for fellowships, they need to have a Plan B for if they don’t come off. Whilst it’s important to ensure our grant awarding process is as fair and transparent as possible, arguing about the whys and wherefores of the grant awarding process is little comfort in the face of an uncertain future with a non-existent career path.

  42. Reading MGG’s comment reminds me of a previous post, in which I discussed the impact of luck in science and science careers. People were all happy to agree luck was an important ingredient – along with hard work of course. However to some extent luck is the flip side of life being unfair.For everyone who has been in the right place at the right time, there will be others who, for whatever reason, were not. In the sense that this is a zero sum game we are engaged with, that has to be so.

    Anyhow, thanks MGG for your enthusiastic words about OT in general, and my posts in particular. Much appreciated.

    • MGG says:

      You are quite welcome.
      ‘However to some extent luck is the flip side of life being unfair.For everyone who has been in the right place at the right time, there will be others who, for whatever reason, were not. In the sense that this is a zero sum game we are engaged with, that has to be so’. Very nicely put.
      It is nice to know that there are people like you, whose lives are not directly impacted by the decisions, who agonize about the fairness of things and people like Jenny who are determined to increase the fairness in the processes, being at the receiving end. And as long as we can engage more and more people to think about these issues from both sides and have a dialogue, I guess there is some hope.

  43. Tom Hartley has just written up his own response to Jenny and my posts. It is here. I think it would be fair to say his conclusion is that this is a very difficult situation if one is trying to level the playing field as much as possible, but he also believes funders could do more. Tom is in favour of modelling the process to see what the outcomes are, and whether they are intuitively obvious or not. My concern is that any model will have to have various assumptions and constraints put into it, and the results will (I would guess) be very strongly dependent on these – so there will always be scope for discussion.

  44. Tom Hartley says:

    I think you are right that the results of any modelling are likely to depend heavily on the underlying assumptions. There are several ways to deal with this:

    i) insure that where possible the assumptions are as valid as possible, e.g., using constraining data from funders etc.
    ii) explore a range of assumptions and determine their effect on the outcome.
    iii) advance a range of alternative models and identify those that best explain the observed data.

    In this way we could determine whether the current approach (which also has its own, implicit, assumptions) is really best. Given the resources involved in the current application and review process, and the resources at stake when projects and fellowships are funded this effort would be well worthwhile.