A post I initially wrote about the consequences of putting arbitrary sell-by dates on post-docs seeking fellowships has been rebutted by my esteemed OT colleague Athene Donald. It’s an interesting post and I encourage people to have a look at it along with the many comments (and, since I don’t want you to interpret the below quotes out of context, do go back and read them in their entirety). However, I’d like to extract three assumptions that came up that interested me the most – and I’d love to hear your views on them (paraphrased below):
Assumption 1. People who’ve taken a bit longer to achieve a decent track record and a portable line of independent research are less likely to become world-leading scientists (and are therefore less worthy of funding).
Athene speculated that funding bodies probably see meanderers as a bad risk: “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.”
She acknowledges, of course, that appearances are deceptive. But is it a generally sound assumption? There is also an alternative hypothesis: someone with more experience might actually do more for the money than someone with less experience. Athene admits she knows of no evidence one way or the other, and neither do I (aside from an unscientific gut feeling that experience is a good thing, not a detriment) so I’m throwing this out to the crowd: has anyone seen any such studies? If so let me know.
It would be reassuring if the eligibility criteria used by the bodies that fund science turned out to be evidence-based.
Assumption 2: The current fellowship evaluation systems of the major funding bodies is as fair as is humanly possible, and it’s not theoretically possible to remove arbitrary experience cutoffs without crippling the system.
I think this one is a non-starter, personally. As far as I’m concerned, anything that doesn’t violate the laws of physics is not impossible, and I wouldn’t accept this argument as a reason not to take a look at how things are done with a fresh eye. (I heard the word “impossible” quite a bit at the beginning of the Science Is Vital campaign, for example.)
Deevybee noted: “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.”
The thing is, we’re brainstorming here, so we’re allowed to be creative. Nobody is suggesting that we ought to dump 200 more files of the same length onto poor Dorothy’s desk. How about if those files were shorter in the first round, more manageable? As a nice analogy, do you remember when pre-submission enquiries started becoming increasingly common? Many of the scientists I knew worried that they wouldn’t be able to make the quality of their paper shine through in an abstract format, and a few journal editors in my acquaintance were similarly concerned. A few decades later and, by and large, the humble “pre-sub” has become a genre appreciated by editors and authors alike for the most competitive journals, probably saving years of wasted time on both sides. I’m not suggesting fellowship apps could be dealt with by abstract alone, but the analogy is meant to show that (1) it is theoretically possible for selection criteria of complex science to be successfully streamlined, and (2) it doesn’t necessarily make more work to let in more applicants if your streamlining has been designed with care to compensate for the increase.
As an aside, I’m not convinced that removing the cut-off dates would lead to the magnitude of inundation feared. As Athene mentioned, many postdocs don’t want to be independent. One way to test this is to ask the RS to supply the total numbers they received last year for the URF compared to this year; the difference might be this elusive figure. It wouldn’t be perfect, as numbers can fluctuate year by year, but it would be a start.
Assumption 3: People who are directly affected by an issue cannot think about it dispassionately or objectively.
Although this issue does affect me directly, I am genuinely trying to explore it in a manner that is balanced and that takes into account all the factors. I don’t think my post or any of my comments has been particularly heated. Rather, I’m just enjoying the stimulating discussion – despite the implication that folks in my plights should just suck up and “take the cards they’re dealt” and that we’re too close to the issue to see the other side. I’ve been interested to hear from people who are adversely affected by these issues, and I’ve been interested to hear from others who are on the other side and are helping to allocated the limited resources as fairly as they can. I would also point out that it’s possible to turn this around: those on the other side are also capable of being overly passionate and could be at the risk of not weighing the opposite argument as fairly as they could either.
I’d suggest we think about this as scientists – with curiosity, with a practical bent and with maximum creativity. Is it a good idea to open up fellowship applicants to all mid-career postdocs? If so, what’s the best way to make it happen logistically – how could we consider streamlining the search for great projects and the future PIs to make them happen?
All ideas welcome!