Nancy Rothwell

June 25, 2004

Committees too often waste man-hours and paper and allow some staff to escape more productive uses of time.

Peter Medawar was a Nobel prizewinning scientist and a great writer. He was also a personal hero of mine - although sadly I never met him. Medawar was a champion of astute observation and worthy comment on many aspects of research and academia. In spite of his many senior responsibilities, however, he clearly held "committees" in some disdain since he wrote: "When I think of older scientists, the picture that forms in my mind is of a committee of grey heads, all confident in the rightness of their opinions and all making pronouncements about the future development of scientific ideas of a kind known by philosophers to be intrinsically unsound."

Perhaps Medawar's view is a little outdated. The "grey heads" are now accompanied by younger staff, and committees may be a little less pompous. But it seems that even today committees are in danger of getting out of control. At worst, they occupy hours of our time, involve many kilograms of paper and all too often fail to reach any definitive conclusions. Sometimes it's hard to see what has been achieved in a lengthy committee other than the consumption of hundreds of man-hours and the sacrifice of a few trees.

In theory, the trees can be saved by increasing the use of electronic information exchange. A CD with many megabytes of information or an email with 15 attachments each to be downloaded (though sadly often printed) is certainly an ecological advance. But when the battery on my laptop fails or the format is beyond my limited IT skills, this isn't always helpful, and I still can't master the art of looking at four separate documents simultaneously on a small screen.

Committees tend to work well when they have an effective (perhaps even dominating) chair and a membership that is informed and interactive, and ideally very busy, so there is no time to prolong fruitless debate or tedious discussion. Someone once said that committees of three people work best - ideally when two are absent. The length of the agenda and the accompanying paperwork often bear no relationship to the importance or duration of the meeting. We have all seen a committee rattle through a long list of items in a short space of time, while in others the first hour has passed and we have not got beyond the matters arising, and even then without conclusion. How often does the most important and interesting issue come up under "any other business" when half the group have made their excuses and left?

Some staff seem to be "professional" committee members. They may be selected as efficient and effective contributors, as experts in a particular area or as representatives. Here there is a problem for women, particularly in science. Most committees have the laudable aim of gender representation. But only about a tenth of senior staff in academic science are female, so achieving a true balance would mean that the women have to do ten times more work - not a viable option. A female colleague wrote recently that she had been asked to join a prestigious group. The list of members she was sent described the names of quite a number of men and "slot for female to be identified". She still accepted graciously. Some staff even volunteer: maybe they enjoy committees, have an admirable sense of responsibility or perhaps want to avoid doing other things, and service on a committee that has real influence is enormously rewarding.

A colleague and good friend of mine who is rather prone to astute analogy and similes suggested that there are two types of committees - "sinks" and "sources" (with very few hybrids). The "sinks" are the most common - they discuss a range of issues and make some decisions that then "go down the plughole" - they go nowhere else. The issues may be important, but many could be dealt with more effectively by small group discussions with limited consultation, and the committees are rarely innovative or influential. Indeed, a little more "benign dictatorship" - instead of the democratic debate and consultation that feature so heavily in universities - might be more productive and efficient.

"Sources" are different and more rare; they innovate and change things.

They are rarely representative - they tend to include a highly selected group of people with the relevant knowledge and expertise who can brainstorm and innovate, and such committees often have a limited agenda.

There cannot be too many "sources", otherwise we would be changing things all the time. But I wonder how many of the "sinks" we could do without simply by thinking about more efficient and effective ways of doing things (albeit perhaps with some loss of democratic representation). Perhaps we should set up "sources" to think about abolishing the "sinks"?

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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