Big antlers will drag you down

May 18, 2007

Research in universities is likely to go the way of the Irish elk unless we bring financial bureaucracy under control, argues Tim Birkhead

The Irish elk was neither exclusively Irish nor an elk; rather it was a giant deer whose best fossil remains come from the peat bogs of Ireland. This was an awesome beast, with males standing more than 2m at the shoulder with antlers 3m across. They employed their enormous antlers to compete for the favours of lady elks and, inevitably, those males whose antlers were bigger than average left the most descendants. As time went on, the antlers of successive generations became so unwieldy that males - so the story goes - simply couldn't function and, victims of their own success, the elk evolved into extinction.

Getting a research grant these days is about as likely as encountering an Irish elk. It is also preposterously random. Not only is it hard to get a grant but, if you are lucky enough to get one, it is increasingly difficult to spend the money without a lot of extra red tape.

The financing of research and teaching is now so complicated that universities are employing more and more people to deal with it. They are also introducing new systems to help manage the money. The irony is that these financial systems cost prodigious sums and, instead of alleviating the academics' burden, seem to be making it more onerous than ever.

Universities seem to be finding the new financial systems - designed originally for businesses - so complex that some institutions are requiring their researchers to attend training courses to learn how to access their hard-won research money. A moment's reflection says that any system that requires one to go on a course to know how to place an order is deeply flawed.

What has happened here is that someone has lost sight of what universities are all about. They are about teaching and research, and the purpose of managers is to facilitate those two exercises. In other words, before implementing a financial system someone should ask: "Is it fit for purpose? What is it that researchers/teachers need?" and then: "How can we devise a system that facilitates this?" Researchers need money, they need to be trusted to spend it responsibly and they need flexibility in their spending. The tight categorisation of funds and the way they are used are the death knell of research innovation, creativity and productivity.

I was recently with a colleague whom I consider to be among the top researchers in the country, who is never without a grant, publishes prolifically in high-profile journals and is based in a wonderful department. But even he was tearing his hair out at the impossibility of the funding bureaucracy.

I can imagine, towards the end of the elk epoch, the last few remaining males stoically lumbering on, consoled (and slightly smug) that despite their heavy burden at least occasionally they found and successfully inseminated a female. But the next generation was doomed. Weighed down under the enormous burden of their bureaucratic antlers, they were barely capable of functioning and were utterly demoralised by their inability to chase females. The Irish elk became extinct some 11,000 years ago.

The notion that the Irish elk evolved itself to extinction is apocryphal.

Rather, it was external forces that resulted in a change in environmental conditions that made it impossible for elk to manoeuvre. Unless someone grasps the elk by the horns, and pulls us free from the overly bureaucratic financial quagmire, we too are destined for extinction.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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