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How Research Grants Corrupt Science

February 25, 2015

By Paul Homewood

 

h/t Joe Public

 

If anybody doubts how massive research grant funding can corrupt climate science, consider this tale from Dr JV’s Frack Land blog. (JV is an applied geophysicist based at the University of Bristol)

 

There is uproar at Bristol University at the sacking of an academic (in the veterinary science department), apparently for failing to secure sufficient research funding. A campaign has been launched for her reinstatement, and it’s been reported in local media as well as HuffPo.

 
This is not an isolated incident. Across the UK, universities are showing themselves willing to fire staff who are failing to bring in research grant money. For instance,
staff at Warwick have been threatened with redundancy if they fail to bring in sufficient research income.

 
I’ve never been sacked or otherwise forced to leave a job in my life. Therefore I am aware that I am a position of privilege in this regard. I can only imagine the stress and hardship involved. On a personal level, I have every sympathy with Dr Hayman and any other academic threatened with the loss of their position. However, I think it raises a few issues regarding my chosen profession that I’d like to discuss.

 
I am currently in a postdoctoral position at Bristol. Most post-docs move from short-term contract to short-term contract (and often from city to city, or even continent to continent to do so), with no job security. Being required to bring in a certain amount of research grant money may indeed put a tenured lecturer "under enormous pressure", as Dr Hayman describes. However, I sincerely doubt that the pressure is greater than that experienced by post-docs as they try to eke out a career in academia.

 
I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my friends and colleagues as they continuously hunt out new opportunities, with the distant hope of one day reaching that holy grail of a permanent job somewhere (anywhere). Incidentally, post-docs may also be "the sole breadwinner", even more so perhaps because the requirement to move continuously from place to place often makes it very difficult for their partners to build a career of their own.

 
According to
a recent Royal Society report, 30% of people who complete a PhD go on to an "Early Career Research" position. However, of that 30%, only 3.5% go on to get a permanent academic position. This is a huge issue for academia at present.

 

JV goes on to explain just how vital research funding is to universities’ balance sheets here, and there’s no doubt the pressure is real. For instance, there is this report from last December on the example he gives at Warwick:

 

The University of Warwick’s decision to single out academics for redundancy on the basis of their research income has been likened to treating them like City traders.

Associate professors, readers and professors in Warwick’s medical school were told last month that those who had not brought in an average of £90,000 as principal investigators (or £150,000 as co-investigators) over the past four years were at risk of redundancy.

There are exemptions for those on teaching- or research-only contracts and for those who have taken up administrative roles or been appointed since June 2012.

Despite this, 20 academics face a meeting with Peter Winstanley, dean of the medical school, this week or next to set out any mitigating circumstances. Final decisions on redundancies are expected in March.

A similar process in Warwick’s School of Life Sciences earlier this year resulted in two academics being made compulsorily redundant and eight others accepting voluntary redundancy because they had not brought in an average of £75,000.

In an email to University and College Union activists this month, Dennis Leech, president of Warwick’s branch of the UCU, says the financial targets put academics in “a similar position to market traders in the City, who are judged solely on the amount of money they raise”.

He also notes that the “medical school contains a variety of laboratory and social scientists, whose needs [in terms of grants] are very diverse”.

According to the Times Higher Education annual analysis of research council income, Warwick secured £32 million in 2013-14 – down from £45 million the previous year but still the 11th highest in the UK.

The redundancy criteria were decided by a committee of three lay members of Warwick’s council working with two academics.

A spokesman for Warwick said the financial criteria had been adopted because the schools had failed to meet their financial targets. He added that academics had been aware of those targets.

But an academic within the medical school denied having been given a financial target and questioned the legality of applying the redundancy criteria retrospectively. The source complained of a lack of transparency over how the figures had been calculated and suggested that the deficit was partly due to several million pounds in outlay on recruiting top researchers for the research excellence framework.

A petition has been launched by the UCU calling on Nigel Thrift, Warwick’s vice-chancellor, to reverse the “damaging and dangerous” process.

David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London, likened Warwick’s financial targets to those given to former Imperial College London scholar Stefan Grimm shortly before he was found dead in September.

He said such targets would push academics, “terrified of being cast on to the streets at short notice”, to “massage data” and carry out the most expensive research they could – by which taxpayers should be “outraged.

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/warwick-academics-treated-like-city-traders-with-financial-targets/2017468.article

 

 

Just read that last bit again.  

To massage data”.

 

Without going into the rights and wrongs of such targets and sackings, is it not abundantly clear that any sceptical climate scientist would not last two minutes in this environment. Or that he would quickly toe the line and make sure that he came up with the results that were required (all of course necessitating “further research”)?

Maybe this is a problem across all disciplines, but what we do know is just how much funding for climate research, and associated topics, has grown over the last few years. In the UK alone, this analysis found that universities were receiving £72 million pa.

Such funding is now of huge importance to universities’ budgets, and they are highly unlikely to do anything which puts this at risk.

5 Comments
  1. February 25, 2015 12:20 pm

    Academic life has become a mug’s game; and even more, a crook’s game. Find something else to do.

  2. February 25, 2015 12:25 pm

    Hi Paul

    Love your blog and thank you for the reality. I’m an accountant too so I know where you are coming from. We’re a bit like scientists should be , and used to be , accept nothing, just dig deeper. Been doing it for over 5 years and still can’t find the evidence, just the rhetoric. Thought my blog might amuse you as I write rhyme, often about global warming climate change. Have attached a couple of links for when, and if, you have time:

    Obama and Ignorance An Infectious Disease http://wp.me/p3KQlH-Co

    Mother Nature Arrested http://wp.me/p3KQlH-qH

    Denying the Witchcraft http://wp.me/p3KQlH-wE

    Climate Science is Building Its Own Funeral Pyre http://wp.me/p3KQlH-cq

    The Time Has Come to Stop Being Afraid http://wp.me/p3KQlH-4m

    Regards and best wishes

    Will Scribe

    I will kill the Dragons

    I’m just taking my time

    Slaying the Monsters

    Rhyme After Rhyme,

    The information contained in this message (including any attachments) is confidential in that it is intended solely for the use of the recipient to which it is addressed. If you are not the intended recipient, the use of the information by disclosure, copying or distribution is prohibited and may be unlawful. Any agreements, views or opinions contained in this e-mail message are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Will Scribe. Will Scribe accepts no responsibility for any loss or damages caused by any malicious code transmitted by this e-mail.

  3. Paul permalink
    February 25, 2015 12:48 pm

    This chasing of funding is nothing new in higher education, as the management accountant for several colleges, we used to encourage and actively seek out foreign students who would contribute full fees, compared with UK students where the govenment paid only two thirds. UK students were subsidised by their foreign colleagues.
    Much of this income would go towards full time lecturers on gold standard civil service contracts, few hours, high hourly rates, compared with fractional lecturers, paid by the hour, hired as required.

  4. Retired Dave permalink
    February 25, 2015 10:58 pm

    Well as we have said many times – the opposite of Diversity is University.

    It is a sobering thought (IMHO) that there are more university lecturers today than there were university students in 1965. Only 6% of school leavers went to university back then and now it is 45%. 15 minutes spent thinking around those facts leads to some obvious outcomes for the standard of academia.

    Who decided that going forward, half the jobs would need a degree??

    Will Scribe – thanks for the links, I have kept a bookmark.

  5. March 22, 2015 5:16 pm

    I post this as a reminder that there is nothing new under the sun: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm. It should be obvious to anyone aware of how politics works to understand that government = good, business = bad plus a government-academia complex = tyranny of the bureaucrat.

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