Indications of Direction of Travel at UKRI

I have been reading the recent publication from UKRI, their strategy document for the next five years. In UKRI’s relatively brief history, this is the first such document it has produced, because it is only now that they have any certainty over their funding for more than a few months: the Spending Review provides them with assurance for three years. The publication is a high-level document and will need to be complemented by a delivery plan. I always get worried when I read documents that state ‘we will [do something fundamentally important]..…’ without clarity over how any of their undoubtedly laudable aims will be translated into practice, but we have to be patient in this case. I am led to believe such a delivery plan will follow in due course, to put flesh on the bones of the aspirations. Thus, in what follows I do absolutely understand the mechanics of making things happen have not been, and in many instances cannot yet be, spelled out, as I raise my questionmarks.

Having known Ottoline Leyser, the current CEO, from before her arrival in Cambridge back in 2010, I know how strongly she believes in diversity and the importance of everyone in a team. In an interview included in the book The Meaning of Success, published (free online) for the University of Cambridge, she said back in 2014:

‘The current system favours the individual agenda, so you wind up with people with big grants and fancy publications, who can be doing very little for the system as a whole.’

She is now in an excellent position to do something about it, by influencing the incentives academia operates under. The incentives which drive processes in every university, too often leading to rewards for those very people with ‘big grants and fancy publications’. Rewards at the expense of those who mentor, do the pastoral legwork, take on the least popular teaching courses and serve on committees, even those which aren’t about allocations of money or space (typically more popular than health and safety, or staff consultative committees), not to mention all those people on the teams who work with the PI with the big grant. We need to see the delivery plan to know how UKRI can start to influence the UK academic culture in the direction she has always wanted.

There are some interesting comments about excellence in the Strategy document, that word whose precise definition is so elusive. Words which tie into the importance of an entire team, not just that bigwig at the top, such as

‘We must escape the constraints of narrow definitions of excellence and excessive focus on the performance of individuals to harness the power of diverse collaborative teams.’

Translating such worthy words into the way a grant-giving panel makes its decisions will be no trivial matter.  How will their standard mental scoresheets be uprooted to encompass a broader definition of excellence? I look forward to seeing what steps are laid out in the delivery plan to achieve this.

There is surprisingly little said in the document about early career researchers and how to resolve the long-standing issues around precarity. I found two mentions of both, with precarity explicitly tied in with the challenges for early career researchers, the first appearance of which says:

‘The career paths people can take through the system are restricted, resulting in precarity, particularly at early career stages, and creating silos between sectors, roles and disciplines.’

These words echo those in last summer’s R&D People and Culture White Paper:

‘we will look to understand and address the impacts of short-term contracts, which particularly impact on the careers and progression of women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds in research.’

Understanding, consultation, are all very well, although I’d have thought there would already be plenty of evidence to inform UKRI. However, what is not spelled out – in either document – is what can be done about the problem. To remove short-term contracts would require a major shake-up on the part of funders such as UKRI, as well as within universities. This is no trivial task, essentially requiring a change to the whole current academic ecosystem (and not just in the UK). When I was first appointed a lecturer at the ripe old age of 32, that was quite old to achieve that status. No more; it would be average-to-young I’d guess. Desirable though such changes to early career trajectories may be, it is not simply going to be a quick tweak and all will be well.

One of the major challenges in this space is the shape of the academic pyramid. As long as a PI trains, say, twenty PhD students over their career (the relevant number will tend to be discipline-dependent), given there is only one of them, unless there is a sudden vast expansion of permanent positions, nineteen of them will not have a position to slot into. Hence many of the nineteen who don’t replace the one at the top when they eventually retire, will feel cheated. Some may always have wanted a career outside academia and be perfectly content. Some may not have anticipated that outcome but also be content when they join a consultancy, a think tank, the civil service, train as a teacher or enter an industrial lab – there are after all plenty of highly desirable and important jobs that don’t involve becoming your boss’s clone. But some will be left struggling through that precarious postdoc experience on a succession of short-term contracts, feeling cheated and increasingly bitter. However, as things stand, that has to be the reality given the structures we have in place. (This has been analysed quite recently in a more scholarly way for US data, but the conclusion is obvious).

Another strand of thinking, more prominent in Ottoline’s words since her appointment and indeed in the People and Culture document than in the recent UKRI Strategy, is the idea of porosity between sectors: that people may move to and fro between different sectors over their lifetimes. The most obvious example (in STEM at least) would be to move between academia and industry, maybe several times during a career. Currently that is a real challenge, since determining the ‘excellence’ of someone who has worked in industry as part of a team and not had the opportunity to publish a stream of first author (or, indeed, last author) papers, for instance, may not be recognized as having an adequately superlative track record by any grant-awarding panel when that person attempts to move back into academia and secure funding.

Even sticking within these quite narrow themes of diversity and excellence, there are many other points I could have made. For instance, UKRI’s diversity statistics do not currently make pretty reading, particularly when it comes to black scientists. What concrete steps are going to be taken to overcome this apparent significant bias against such researchers? If you want to know more about these problems, I’d recommend following @TIGERinSTEM and @profRachelGaN (Rachel Oliver) on Twitter, who are fantastic at keeping this topic in the public eye, and who recently spoke to the Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee about the issues. Then when it comes to bullying, another of Ottoline’s bêtes noires, I’m afraid the Twitter feed of UKRI’s chosen service for reporting outcomes and impact,  ResearchFish has rather blotted the copybook, with the hostile, indeed somewhat threatening tweets they sent out last week:

“We understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder.”

In summary, there are major challenges to address if the desired outcomes laid out in the Strategy are successfully to come to fruition, but even modest steps in any of these directions might lead to a more healthy work environment for many. I look forward to seeing these.




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