Have our udders shrunk again?

February 23, 2007

Like cows bred for a bigger milk yield, Tim Birkhead believes that academics bred for large research outputs have lost much of what made them productive in the first place

I was amused, saddened and more than a little incredulous on reading in The Times Higher recently about a situation in which someone was clearly stressed by being made to feel that they should have answered an undergraduate's e-mail over the weekend (Ask the panel, January 26). This raises a number of issues about stress and just how much academics should work.

Early in my career, the norm for scientists in my field was to publish two or three papers each year. Then, in the mid-1980s, one or two energetic pioneers started to churn out a staggering 15 or more papers a year in quality journals. Almost overnight expectations for the field were elevated. To remain competitive, many of us felt we had to try to match the output of these new players, and nothing less than five to ten papers per annum was considered worthy.

There are several ways researchers can increase their output: (i) by being very smart and very efficient; (ii) by cheating; (iii) by reducing their commitment to teaching; and (iv) by working longer hours. For most researchers, working longer hours was the only option. In fact, this cranking up of the quantity and quality of output merely prepared researchers for the culture of assessment and performance that was to come.

A sustained high output is now the normal expectation.

The question is whether these high expectations lead to stress.

Policy-makers will argue that they don't, since there is no obvious drop off in the number of young researchers wanting to become academics. But while there may have been no change in numbers, there has almost certainly been a change in the nature of academics. In the past, academics were rather like ammonites - those wonderful spiral fossils that remained the same over millions of years because their environment remained unchanged.

The cuts, assessment and increase in student numbers generated an enormous shift in the academic environment and brought with it a change in selection pressures. Darwin used the concept of artificial selection to illustrate how changes in selection pressure could produce animals or plants very different from their wild ancestors. For example, by artificially selecting for increased milk yield, farmers have produced cows with huge udders and massive milk output. Fantastic if you were a farmer, but although the success of this kind of artificial selection was initially tremendous, as time went on the improvement got less and less, simply because genetic variation in milk yield - or any other trait under selection - was used up.

Something very similar has happened in academia.

After several decades of stasis, the huge change in the academic environment has selected for a very specific set of traits, most notably stress tolerance, competitiveness, myopia and self-promotion.

There are two issues. First, have we used up all the variation in these traits? The answer seems to be a clear "yes" since most universities now offer stress counselling to their staff. Second, what are the consequences of this artificial academic selection? As all evolutionary biologists know, there are no free lunches. Selection for increase in milk yield - or any other kind of productivity - is invariably offset by a reduction in life span. Putting your feet up and not answering e-mails at the weekend may help to extend your naturally allotted time by a few extra days or even weeks.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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