We must eliminate bias against researchers who stay put

Marking down fellowship applicants for being unwilling to move institutions can be deeply unfair, say Trisha Greenhalgh and Ed Hawkins

August 1, 2019
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Asha is shortlisted for a UK early career fellowship. At the interview, she outlines a programme of personal development that includes a year in the US, followed by a transfer to a research group at a different UK university. Visibly pregnant, she describes the different skills she will gain and ideas to which she will be exposed in her carefully chosen institutions.

In their subsequent discussion, panel members don’t mention Asha’s pregnancy, but do praise her commitment and ambition. They award her the fellowship.

Up against Asha is Amanda. She has several good publications, including one with her ex-PhD supervisor (to whose research group she is still attached), one with another professor at the same university (with whom she has begun to collaborate informally), and one with colleagues overseas. But she plans to stay at her current institution. When asked why, she says she already has the freedom to develop her own research programme, while her husband is an academic at the same university and their toddler is settled in their nursery.

After Amanda leaves the room, the panellists question whether she will be independent enough, or is fully committed to achieving the highest level in her field. She doesn’t get the fellowship.

Whereas bias against pregnant academics is illegal and recognised as discriminatory, what might be called centrifugal bias – that is, bias against those who wish to stay in the same institution – generally goes unmeasured. Even when it is recognised, centrifugal bias may be seen by panels as justified as it chimes with their expectations of what a young academic should do.

When we raised this issue on Twitter recently, one mid-career academic cited feedback on an unsuccessful fellowship application that had explicitly stated that they “needed to travel abroad and move to the training”, while another said that in their speciality, “you were seen as less [eligible] if you hadn’t done your ‘BTA’ (been to America)”.

Formal research on this topic is sparse. However, anecdotally, centrifugal bias appears to disproportionately affect women. As one put it on Twitter: “[Centrifugal bias] is pretty much why, as a postdoc with three small children, I never even bothered applying for fellowships. I luckily got permanent lectureship at my postdoc institution; others weren’t so lucky. It shouldn't be like this.”

Academia’s centrifugal expectation dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when young Oxbridge humanities graduates were expected to conduct a “grand tour” of major European cities to extend their intellectual horizons, gain cultural capital and learn other languages. In science, too, the international exchange of young scientists has long been seen as a key means of replicating specialist techniques. The key text here is Harry Collins’ classic 2001 study, Tacit Knowledge, Trust and the Q of Sapphire, which sets out how no Westerners came close to replicating the quality of Russian lab-made sapphires until they spent several months working in that Moscow lab.

These examples are appealing. But there are undoubtedly risks in moving to another institution, in terms of mental energy expended and time taken to relocate and settle into a new environment, both personally and professionally. Moving can also be expensive. Moreover, given the modern world’s ubiquity of knowledge and technical connectivity, is it really necessary – or even desirable – to go to such lengths to shake off the supposedly deadening influence of the ex-PhD supervisor? To what extent should we still interpret miles travelled or institutions visited as a reliable index of academic “independence”?

On Twitter, academics were sceptical. One said: “Perhaps [we] ought to recognise that different people flourish in different circumstances? Some like to travel, meet new people, learn from diversity of contexts etc. Some flourish better by putting down roots and benefiting from [a] stable research ‘family’.”

While many comments from young academics suggested that some panels are still prone to centrifugal bias, it appears that at least some are able and willing to distinguish the goal of independence from the mechanism by which it is achieved. One academic tweeted that the research council panel they had chaired earlier this year had been “looking for developing independence as part of ALL applications. Some candidates staying at the same institution did not demonstrate this…others, also remaining, did.”

Reassuringly, a successful fellowship applicant (to a different panel) also affirmed this: “I managed to argue that I didn’t need to move institutions because I had a wide range of international collaborations and I was in the best place to do the work I had planned.”

Still, in an era in which we are confronting biases of all kinds, perhaps it is time we developed some descriptors and standards for centrifugal bias so that we can at least recognise it, call it out and (where necessary) start to measure it. Alternatively – and more radically – panels could allow (or require) the applicant to decline to stipulate where they would conduct their fellowship.

Otherwise, while young academics may take less of a career hit on account of pregnancy, they could still be punished for seeking to put down roots for personal, family or academic reasons.

Trisha Greenhalgh is professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford. Ed Hawkins is a professor of climate science at the University of Reading.

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Reader's comments (3)

This article is so biased. What it describes apply only to hiring practices in a few elite UK and US institutions. In many academic systems (Italy, Germany etc) inbreeding is pervasive. The only way to get a job is often to get a job at the same institution where one has done their PhD, or in one where the PhD supervisor has connections. In a lot of the academic world, applications by "external" are automatically disregarded. The "centrifugal bias" the authors talk about is a way a few elite institutions try to fight inbreeding and make sure that they hire talented and committed candidates, rather than those who own their position to the support of "[a] stable research ‘family’” (read: a powerful patron).
As well as being as indirectly discriminating against women, centrifugal bias also indirectly discriminates against disabled applicants who may be unable to travel internationally (some countries will not even issue visas if you will "place too much pressure on the health or social care system") or even within country (since transferring between hospitals and doctors can be extremely disruptive.) It seems to me that it could be argued that this sort of policy is actually discriminatory since it indirectly discriminates against members of at least two protected groups (gender and disability.)
The problem, in the example given of Amanda, the researcher who is not willing to change institutions, is about the practice of hiring two members of the same family as academics - husband and wife, or father and daughter. The stable research 'family', isn't just that, it has literally become a research family, whether stable or not, a university engaging in nepotism, which hardly an acceptable way to conduct a hiring. If the reluctant researcher hasn't had a chance yet to experience the risks of moving day, maybe she should, to get over that fear. The article doesn't say whether she teaches or just does research. But one issue that is not mentioned is the effect on students, often international students, who might just know more about life than their teacher. If she is not willing to try living in another country, or at least a different city, is she really suitable to teach, if she decided to at a later date. It is a fact that "different people flourish in different circumstances", but how do they know how far they can extend themselves if they don't try. It's a university, not a safe haven for employees to feel secure in.