Regulation of academics ‘has undermined public trust’

Public suspect researchers are performing ‘impact’ and hitting targets for the benefit of government regulators, not them, European academies argue

June 9, 2018
Moving the goalposts
Source: Getty

Attempts to regulate researchers and make them “accountable” through targets and measurement of their impact on the wider world may actually have reduced trust in scholarly expertise, Europe’s scientific academies have warned.

A discussion paper published by All European Academies (Allea), based on input from leading thinkers on trust from across the Continent, postulates that “regulation, accountability and the growth of a managerial culture” has “altered the role of research and scientists in recent decades”.

“Much of modern science...is measured by impact and notions such as fostering innovation, which are not bad in and of themselves but when put in a regulatory and accountability framework tend to lead to narrow and at times perverse incentives,” according to Loss of trust? Loss of trustworthiness? Truth and expertise today.

The use of readily measurable targets to track academics is supposed to make them more accountable to the public – but in practice they mean accountability to regulators and government ministers, it suggests; the public realises this, and trusts researchers less, not more, as a result. Science needs a new “moral economy” that enhances trust, the report argues.

Robert Lepenies, an expert on behaviour and public policy at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, said that empirical studies showed no evidence of a “cataclysmic downfall in public trust in expertise”.

Scientists and experts as a group still “enjoy higher levels of trust than other groups”, he said. What had changed, he argued, was that particularly in the US and UK the “open denigration of experts” was now acceptable in political debate.

More studies were needed to know for sure, he said, “but a narrow...view of what accountability means is making science much worse”.

The “tyranny of metrics” had come to determine research decisions, he said, as young academics in particular “have to fit a system of metrics, rather than following their curiosity”.

But he said that he was “all for” a wider type of accountability, where academics talk to the public and “get into fights on Twitter” about scientific topics.

Boris Grozdanoff, an associate professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences who specialises in the philosophy of science and has participated in the Allea discussions, said that the issue in many countries – including Bulgaria – was that academics were “too dependent on political connections, ideological views, even corruption”.

Some governments had sought to justify unpopular decisions by cloaking them in scientific expertise, he warned. “If society is unhappy with a government decision…they can wave the report of a scientific panel and say this is what science thinks,” he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Yes, and rightly so. I studied Spanish at Edinburgh where student support was as poor as it can get. Those academics are on public-sector salaries that are often three times the national average and they simply don't give a toss about you. This includes the head of school telling his students he is "too busy" to reply to emails or to have office hours, or the arrogant professor who reminds us he is a member of some academy and has no time for us.
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I think JR has missed the point. The metrics now make staff less likely to be interested in students since some of the key metrics are for research. My own progress has often been slowed by actually doing all of my job properly (rapidly answering student queries, writing references within a reasonable time, properly supervising project students and so on ). This does not get one to the top quickly and one is still expected to hit the REF metrics, which thankfully I always have. Although, there are lots of reasons to wish that I was young now, the current academic job is not one of them. The appeal of the career is much diminished; for the record we are not public-sector employees nor are salaries high when compared with professionals with high-level qualifications rather than with a population average including all, whatever their skills and qualifications. I admire the dedication of David Beckham for practicing free kicks but my equivalent time spent on academic work seems to be resented and certainly does not result in the same financial rewards. Finally, academic life is not some closed-shop and all of the critics are free to attempt to gain academic jobs and to survive in them.

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