Do you know Excellence when you see it?

Politicians toss around phrases like ‘levelling up’ and ‘build back better’, not to mention ‘freedom of speech’, with gay abandon. Such words sound so positive and authoritative, what could be the problem? As many people have pointed out, however, there tend to be internal inconsistencies, exemplified by the University Minister Michelle Donelan’s statements about holocaust deniers being acceptable under proposed free speech legislation, a position swiftly contradicted by the Prime Minister. As for ‘build back better’, one has to dig down into that to see who it’s better for (property developers or the environment, to take two perhaps extreme categories of ‘end users’) and levelling up seems to mean different things to politicians from local communities (see this recent article for a discussion about the politics of this).

Academics aren’t likely to fall into the same traps, are they? Well, I fear they are. To take two words often found on referees’ lips: excellence and impact. The ERC is well known for only using the former, and not the latter, unlike UKRI grants in general. No doubt referees feel they know excellence when they see it (Wikipedia’s first example of the use of this phrase interestingly refers to obscenity in a US Supreme Court decision in 1964) but, guilty though I’m sure I’ve been in that direction when I’ve sat on panels to judge grants, that somewhat subjective measure is of course exactly where bias can set in. As I’ve frequently written before, if not quite in those words, that has been one of the challenges for interdisciplinary research. Panel members tend to like what they know and have confidence in (see eg here). Interdisciplinary research may make them feel uncomfortable if only half the words make much sense to them; that makes it harder for them to recognize excellence even if it is there.

I will await the analysis of outputs marked up as interdisciplinary to the REF with some trepidation, given I’ve chaired the panel responsible for trying to devise appropriate guidance both for institutions to have confidence in submitting such outputs and for the sub-panels – containing their named interdisciplinary advisers – equally to have confidence they can judge such outputs fairly. However, it is not just when grant submissions are interdisciplinary that the challenge of comparing apples and oranges arises. How does one compare a project on spins of quantum dots versus nano-electronic insulation (to take two topics at random from my own department’s website)? Some grant applications can be thrown out swiftly, probably when a department hasn’t done a good enough sift beforehand, although who knows which excellent ones have been thrown out for political rather than scientific reasons. Perhaps they are seen as being flawed, incremental, lacking the equipment or done by someone else already. Straying into the territory of the excellence (or otherwise) of the PI certainly risks not only the Matthew Effect, but also bias. Maybe the referee or panel speaker has had a run in with said PI and bears a grudge….or (and I saw this once) the panel did not want to offend the person concerned – an overwhelming conflict of interest would be declared these days – so it was hard to be appropriately objective. Excellence is not quite as simple as we might all wish to believe.

What about excellence in a career? It’s a question on which I’m personally reflecting post-retirement, since I’m not sure (not least because of the Matthew Effect) that I should be judged by grant income, let alone by the letters after my name. Those criteria seem insufficient to define a life well-lived. Nor am I at all sure that phrase amounts to the same thing as excellence. When I was living in the USA, Jimmy Carter became President, with his implicit motto the title of his book Why Not the Best? published in 1976, the year before he took up the mantle. As a young idealist, it struck me at the time as a wonderful tagline (although I never read the book), but ‘best’ like ‘excellence’ is a hard word to capture.

So I’m left pondering, have I done enough for society, whether or not it is called impact? Does the fact I haven’t invented a wonderful widget outscore on the negative side any positive points I might have scored through my work as gender champion? Was it ‘better’ or ‘worse’ (for whom, one might ask) that my research career faded out somewhat accidentally when I became gender champion simultaneously with chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee? Both those were immensely rewarding roles, if also frustrating upon occasion, but how should I have weighed up at the time the cessation of my research, particularly as I was so busy that I didn’t spot for a long time that I had failed to apply for further grants? One can torture oneself indefinitely along these lines!

Questions, questions, there are undoubtedly more questions in this blogpost than usual, because it seems to me these are all important if unanswerable questions. As we, in the UK, hope we are emerging from the worst of the pandemic, as vaccinations (now there’s some work no one needs doubt was excellent!) take hold and more and more of the adult population have some protection, there is much of which to take stock. Of the way our lives, teaching, meetings and so on have changed. I agree with all those who say we are working even harder now than ever. I may not have had the burden of recording lectures, for which I am duly grateful, but there have been far too many days of non-stop meetings, with barely time for mugs of coffee, lunch or the requisite comfort breaks.

My levels of exercise have plummeted now I no longer cycle into town for meetings (or dinners!) let alone further to the railway station on the other side of Cambridge once or twice a week. I am sure I am not alone in living a life apparently glued to my computer chair. Yet I seem to have no more time because of that travelling time I’m saving. On the contrary. Somehow, in this Covid life, intensity increases but well-being does not. What of this changed life should we carry over to the brave new world we may be lucky enough to face at the start of the new academic year. I sense everyone is hedging their bets about how much will be face-to-face. For instance, I do wonder if our colleagues much further from London will decide that getting on a train (let alone a plane) from the further flung parts of the UK to attend a two hour meeting just isn’t worth the effort. For them zoom may continue to be a major part of their life. Alternatively they may feel trains continue to offer – as I have regularly found – a great space away from other people to sit and read a thesis or thick wadge of committee papers.

Who knows how things will settle down in a year or two! And will that way of life be ‘excellent’, better than what we had before, or will it simply be another botched job as we move from crisis to crisis?

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