Manic research roundabout is the only ride in town

February 6, 2004

The RAE monster is breeding a new type of scientist and he's not pretty.

Tim Birkhead tells you how to cope

Imagine you have recently completed your PhD and just secured a postdoctoral fellowship. Being poised on the threshold of an academic career is like your first visit to a fair as a small child. The glittering lights, loud music and swirling rides all seem irresistible - and the roundabout beckons. The ride is exhilarating. You never imagined you'd ever get here, never believed it could go so fast and be so exciting. But the faster the roundabout goes, the more you worry about falling off.

A roundabout is how several of my friends have described their life in science: hectic, frenetic and exhilarating, but whirling faster year by year. Researchers new to the job naively think they are driving the roundabout. But they come to realise that it is driven by a monster whose appetite and demands are insatiable - the research assessment exercise. As long as you can keep your balance, it is OK: wonderful, in fact, for the monster looks elsewhere for victims. But don't lose your balance and don't ever think about getting off for a rest.

Getting onto the fellowship scheme sets you off, albeit on a one-way course. This is the training for an academic career. Because the number of places is so limited, the fellowship is also a bottleneck. But some, seeing what looms, decide that university life is not for them. The prospect of continuous stress, guilt at not working all the time, reduced family life, lack of hobbies and holidays, the dripping-tap email torture and meagre salary are not attractive to everyone. For others, the promise of a life in science is intoxicating. Excitement may be infrequent but, when it comes, it more than compensates for long periods of routine research, undergraduate teaching and bureaucracy.

Scientific research has always required special attributes: tenacity, bravado, standards of work set by the most driven of our colleagues. But the environment in higher education has changed. And, in evolutionary terms, a changed environment generates new selection pressures. In the long run, selection pressures can create new species, and it is beginning to look as though that might be happening in universities.

The current environment selects for a particular phenotype, which at its most extreme is the aggressive, workaholic, testosterone-driven, selfish individual prepared to trample others underfoot to stay on the roundabout and achieve the levels of productivity demanded by that RAE monster. What's more, since these are unequivocally male attributes, selection favours men at the expense of women. The tragedy is that no sooner have enlightened policy-makers created better opportunities for women in science, than the RAE monster spins the roundabout that little bit faster. No wonder some women feel as though they are struggling to keep up, or decide they would rather grapple with less demanding workplace monsters.

One of the scariest aspects of the RAE roundabout is what happens to academics as they age. There seem to be three options: they can be physically plucked from the roundabout by their head of department; they may hang on until they lose their grip and are flung off - but survive; or they can leap off voluntarily. Whatever the option, the result is the same.

Once-active researchers who fail to get a grant or to publish or simply want to step off the ride to catch their breath are dumped with administration (or, if they are lucky, more teaching), only to find that there's another monster. This one is less immediately identifiable than the research one. It occurs in multiple forms, having speciated on the different islands in the academic archipelago. This is the bureaucracy monster. What makes this particular monster so sinister is that it seems to be fed and petted by our own masters. At least the RAE monster offers rewards. My advice: once you are on the roundabout, stay there.

Tim Birkhead is professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sheffield.

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