My career is being killed by blind bureaucracy

May 11, 2007

An academic facing dismissal after a 'spreadsheet appraisal' calls for more human, not automated, management

A curt e-mail, cold in tone, gave me short notice to meet with my boss. It could only be bad news. And it was, letting me know officially that there were concerns about my performance as an academic and "principal investigator".

The background is that I (like all other academics at my university) am "performance-managed" in a way that is blind to differences between fields of research and to individual circumstances. So, for example, lone researchers are compared with those working in large groups. We get annual e-mails carefully plotting publications, grant income and teaching hours against those of other academics. But without any human support, this doesn't make a contribution to improving our research.

The reason for the graphs, of course, is that our performance as academics is based on targets - the quality and quantity of publications and financial viability - that are all strictly defined. At my university, three papers a year are required, one of which should be in a journal with an impact factor above 5. Financial viability is achieved if a specific fraction of grant income plus teaching income is equal to expenditure, which includes not only salary but also overheads such as space, lighting, heating and administration. Methods like these may be appropriate in areas such as industrial manufacturing. But research, by definition, is not a conveyer belt that can predictably turn out product. Also, it depends on a methodology - experiments - that proceeds iteratively, with many false turns, to reach the right answer. On the other hand, imposing a system that is satisfied with nothing less than steady productivity promotes a culture in which only things that are known to work are pursued and contributes to undermining both the excitement that brings people into science and, ultimately, the productivity and usefulness of the endeavour.

My recent meeting came in the last year of a tenure-track appointment, and I knew I was due a final review meeting to decide on whether I could be given tenure. Clearly, my timing could not have been worse. In the intensely "top-down" system in which I found myself, it was impossible to find anyone to tell that I, and my group, was making good progress. I was accumulating data, some of which has now been published in quality journals, and I was really pleased with the way in which my small team worked together.

The date for the review meeting was set, and I was surprised to learn that someone from human resources would attend. I was told that I could bring a union rep or colleague "if I wished". I knew enough about employment law to realise that this was not quite normal procedure and, indeed, on inquiring further it became clear that the options for the panel were to dismiss me with the minimum notice period or to extend my contract for up to a year.

This came as a shock. My performance had never been discussed with my line manager; and I never did badly on the performance graphs. At appraisals, there was no interest in the research I was doing. The only questions were: what publications have you got? what papers submitted? what grants have you got? what grants submitted? We have had mock research assessment exercises, which again consisted of exchanges of e-mails. Neither my line manager or any others wanted to find out about what I was doing or how I was integrating in the department.

My experience is of a managerial culture in which performance targets are set for the production of papers and the acquisition of grants. And all the while one is judged on spreadsheets that one never gets to see, by people one doesn't know and who themselves don't know what one is trying to do or the circumstances in which one is working.

Science is not a monolithic structure, but one common attribute that must be central to the whole process is that it should be about making advances and doing things that have not been done before. It is obvious that this requires human, not automated, management. Spreadsheets and targets set in concrete cannot possibly have the adaptability that is needed to see potential, but can only look backward. Slowly but surely squeezing out human management will reduce the potential for science to make real advances and, therefore, real differences to peoples' lives. I do not yet know what my fate at the hands of the review committee will be, but my career and future are very much in doubt.

The writer is an academic who wishes to remain anonymous.

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