Efficiency

This time last year I was wondering whether to renew my subscription to Nature. Now I have decided not to. This is not only because soon I will be living on a pension and should start cutting my expenses; I have lost faith in Nature as a scientific journal because of the amount of journalism and opinion that it now contains. (In addition, most of the science is of the “wet” kind, with the occasional piece on experimental physics and virtually nothing mathematical.)

On returning from Lisbon I found three issues waiting for me. The first issue I picked up had a feature on reducing waste in university science departments, with three opinion pieces. The first piece was by Thomas Marty, a senior consultant at a company specialising in the management of academic institutions – no conflict of interest there then! He claims that his company

“see many examples in which academics who insist on the wrong kind of autonomy cause a great deal of administrative waste.”

(I am inevitably reminded of “the wrong kind of snow”. For readers outside Britain or those too young to remember when we had a national railway company, this company promised that it had made certain changes so that in the coming winter its trains would not be delayed by snow. When they were, of course, delayed, it explained that “the wrong kind of snow” had fallen.)

The example given in support of this claim involved a department where the academics decided what subjects to teach the students, causing a lot of trouble for the poor underpaid and overworked administrators. The solution was to put in a strong boss who simply told the academics what to teach.

The second and third articles are by Paula Stephen, a professor of economics, and Pierre Azoulay, from a management school. (Just the kind of academics to reform universities, after their sterling work on the world banking system.) The economist claims that scientists are motivated not just by love of knowledge but also by money, and can be encouraged to submit papers to high-end journals by financial incentives. I hardly know where to start criticising this; let me just say that in the case of submission to high-end journals, Professor Stephen has it wrong: we know where we want to submit our papers, but our non-academic bosses think they know better and order us to send them to high-end journals. One of my earliest posts dealt with this issue. The management guru proposes that we should experiment with the careers of young scientists in a controlled way.

I have seen the effect of this strong, efficient management in many places: researchers are asked to sign papers promising to deliver a certain number of papers of a certain standard. Research is a commodity which can be bought, and the buyer (using public funds) is obligated to drive the price down.

Just by chance, the same issue contains a glowing piece by Daniel Cressey on the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s setting up of Doctoral Training Centres, Mr Cressey’s qualifications and affiliation are not given, but from the article it is hard to believe he is not an EPSRC press officer or something similar. The one true thing he says is that the process is “unstoppable”. (I think the same applies to the other pieces as well; we had better be prepared.)

It was only last year that the International Review of UK Mathematics was published. It said very strongly that the diversity (geographical, in size of institution, and in subject matter) of our mathematics was its greatest strength and must be maintained. EPSRC didn’t want to hear this, and have taken various action to discredit the report. But their approach with DTCs is much simpler: just ignore it. Doctoral Training Centres will enormously narrow the experiences available to beginning PhD students, will have serious damaging effects to institutions that do not get one of these centres, and (by virtue of the tight control) will enable PhD training to be moved away from pure research and more towards other skills such as “running a lab, or working outside academia”.

The research councils clearly want to run British science more cheaply. What is certain is that they will cheapen British science by doing so.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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One Response to Efficiency

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    The phenomena you note are but a piece of a global effort to capture and capitalize the very idea of the public good and place it under the control of private interests. It has nothing to do with efficiency, but that hue and cry has been efficient in diverting the energies of the masses before — and it will no doubt work the same way again.

    One can only hope that the collective Dr.Van Winkles @ IvoryTower.edu will not doze too long — before they find themselves all working for YetAnother.com.

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