An analysis of research income targets in last week’s Times Higher Education (“Grant goals set for staff at one in six campuses”, 11 June) revealed that quite a few UK universities are especially keen to incentivise academics to rip off the taxpayer.
Before deans, pro vice-chancellors and vice-chancellors cry foul of that deliberately provocative (albeit accurate) opening line, they should consider what message they send when they use raw grant income as a performance metric, not normalised to any measure of productivity or value for money. In an era when austerity is crippling essential public services, universities have an obligation to encourage academics to make the most efficient and frugal use of funding. Instead, THE showed, too often the mantra from on high is crass and simplistic: “Show me the money.”
The disclosures made in response to THE’s Freedom of Information requests make for intriguing and unnerving reading. A number of universities have explicit targets – sometimes euphemistically referred to as “expectations” – for staff research income. “We have grant income targets for departments/schools/institutes rather than for individuals” is also a common theme, as if they were not directly linked: a departmental target is almost always a de facto target for the department’s staff. An academic performance criterion, taken from my own university’s annual “personal development and performance review” documentation, makes the point particularly well: “Sustained research income equal to/in excess of Russell Group average for the discipline group.”
The University of Nottingham, which declined THE’s FoI request on the basis that it would take too much time to answer, is certainly not alone in benchmarking grant income against the competition. The University of Warwick, among others, refused to respond to the FoI request as to do so “would be likely to prejudice the University’s commercial interests because it would reveal market sensitive information which could be of potential usefulness to our competitors”. While this reply holds to the letter of the law, it is infuriating that an FoI request on matters directly related to public funding is dismissed on the basis of commercial sensitivities and market competition.
As Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, pointed out in THE earlier this year, the focus on grant income targets is corroding the research “ecosystem”: “We now have the weird situation whereby a researcher who achieves important results with little or no funding is valued less than someone who receives a huge grant but fails to do anything sensible with it.” The focus on ever-increasing numbers of ever-larger grants can be counterproductive: the supervision, training and management of a research team – and the quality of its work – can all suffer as a principal investigator struggles to juggle too many commitments.
Grant income targets for individual academics have been blamed for the tragic death last year of Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology at Imperial College London. This might have been expected to prompt UK universities – particularly and especially Imperial – to take a long, hard look at whether performance metrics based on grant income are appropriate in publicly funded universities. (As David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London, put it in an email to Imperial’s rector shortly after the circumstances of Grimm’s death went public: “I hope that your humanity will ensure a change of policy in your approach to ‘performance management’. Failing that, the bad publicity that you’re getting may be enough to persuade you to do so.”) That such an event did not change how universities appraise staff nor lead to the dismissal of the grant-income-as-performance-metric concept is deeply worrying. Asked about Grimm’s death on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in April, Alice Gast, president of Imperial, referred to professors as akin to “small business owners”. The inadvertent resonance with Grimm’s final email was, to say the least, unfortunate: “This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy…profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money.”
The use of raw grant income as a performance target has got to go. Now. It’s blatantly flawed and immoral because it encourages us to overstate the publicly funded resources we need for our work. But there’s a simple solution. Here’s my advice to senior university managers: put aside the fixation on flawed metrics and trust your staff. I know – scandalously naive. But try it as an experiment. The vast majority of academics are hard-working and highly motivated: the sector would collapse if we didn’t go the extra mile (one never taken into account by the metrics). If researchers are producing high-quality work, they should be rewarded for doing it as efficiently as possible. They should no longer be coerced into over-egging the pudding to meet targets designed to pocket as much funding from the public purse as possible.
Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham.