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.