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I was asked recently to write a reply to an article about "research managers" for the magazine Research Fortnight. This is a magazine that carries news of research and has a very useful list of potential research funding agencies.

The article to which I was asked to respond originally had the title “Researchers and Research Managers, a match made in heaven?“, before the subeditors got hold of it. It was written by Simon Kerridge, who is secretary of the Association for Research Managers and Administrators The printed version of his article can be downloaded here, and the printed version of my response here. My response, as submitted, is below with live links.

This invitation came at a strangely appropriate time, just at the moment that every university is having serious budget cuts, Well, here is a chance to make a good start on cutting out non-jobs..

Researchers and Research Managers: an imminent divorce?

David Colquhoun, UCL.

The web site of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators says it has 1600 individual members [1], but every scientist I have met is baffled about why they have suddenly sprung into existence.  The web site says “Our mission is to facilitate excellence in research by identifying and establishing best practice in research management and administration”.  I had to read that several times in an attempt to extract a meaning from the mangled bureaucratic prose.  “Our mission is to promote excellence in research”.  How can non-scientists with no experience of research possibly “promote excellence in research”?  They can’t, and that’s pretty obvious when you read the second half of the sentence.  They propose to improve science by promoting research management, i.e.  themselves.

res fortnight

Kerridge’s article didn’t help much either.  He seems to think that research managers are there to make that scientists fulfil “overall strategic aims of the University”.  In other words they are there to make sure that scientists obey the orders of non-scientists (or elderly ex-scientists) who claim to know what the future holds.  I can think of no better way to ruin the scientific reputation of a university and to stifle creativity.

We all appreciate good support.  We used to have a very helpful person in the department (not a ‘manager’) who could advise on some of the financial intricacies, but now it is run by a ‘manager’ it has been centralised, depersonalised and it is far less efficient.

The fact of the matter seems to be that “research managers” are just one more layer of hangers-on that have been inflicted on the academic enterprise during the time new labour was in power.  They are certainly not alone.  We have now have “research facilitators” and offshoots of HR running nonsense courses in things like Brain Gym [2].  All of these people claim they are there to support research.  They do no such thing.  They merely generate more paper work and more distraction from the job in hand.  Take a simple example.  At a time when there was a redundancy committee in existence to decide which academics should be fired in my own faculty, the HR department advertised two jobs (on near professorial salaries) for people trained in neurolinguistic programming (that is a well-known sort of pseudo-scientific psychobabble, but it’s big business [3]).

A quick look at what research managers actually do (in two research-intensive universities) shows that mostly they send emails that list funding agencies, and to forward emails you already had from someone else.  Almost all of it can be found more conveniently by a couple of minutes with Google.  Although they claim to reduce administrative work for scientists, it is usually quicker to do it yourself than to try to explain things to people who don’t understand the science.  They don’t save work, they make it.

One might well ask how it is that so much money has come to be spent on pseudo-jobs like “research managers”.  I can only guess that it is part of the ever-expanding tide of administrative junk that encumbers the work of people who are trying to do good creative science.  It also arises from the misapprehension, widespread among vice-chancellors, that you can get creative science by top down management of research by people who know little about it.

I’m reminded of the words of the “unrepentant capitalist”, Luke Johnson [4] (he was talking about HR but the words apply equally here).

“HR is like many parts of modern businesses: a simple expense, and a burden on the backs of the productive workers”,

“They don’t sell or produce: they consume. They are the amorphous support services”.

“I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it.”

The dangers are illustrated by the report [5] of a paper by the professor of higher education management at Royal Holloway (yes, we already have a chair in this non-subject).  It seems that “Research "can no longer be left to the whims and fortunes of individual academics" “.  It must be left to people who don’t do research or understand it.  It’s hard to imagine any greater corruption of the academic enterprise.

Oddly enough, the dire financial situation brought about by incompetent and greedy bankers provides an opportunity for universities to shed the myriad hangers-on that have accreted round the business of research.  Savings will have to be made, and it’s obvious that they shouldn’t start with the people who do the teaching and research on which the reputation of the university depends.  With luck, it may not be too late to choke off the this new phenomenon before it chokes us. If you want research, spend money on people who do it, not those who talk about it.

 [1] Association of Research Managers and Administrators http://www.arma.ac.uk/about/

[2] When HR gets hold of academe, quackery and gobbledegook run riot. Times Higher Education 10 April 2008, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=401385  and expanded version at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226

[3] What universities can do without. http://ucllifesciences.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/what-universities-can-do-without/

[4] Luke Johnson The Truth About the HR Department, Financial Times, Jnauary 30 2008 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9e10714c-ced7-11dc-877a-000077b07658.html  and http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226

[5] Managers must be qualified to herd the academic cats. Times Higher Education 20 May 2010 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=411643

 

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6 Responses to Research managers: an incubus round the neck of research

  • David, we have always been there, you just never noticed or (unless you are just being provocative) cared. We made sure that those grant applications, where the costings were provided on the back of an envelope, looked like a well thought out justification and were submitted to the funder via that pesky electronic portal. We made sure that those four tablets of stone you and your colleagues write each assessment period became a fully rounded submission to the RAE. We always did our best to make sure that you were not bogged down in administration and distracted from “doing good creative science”.

    I remember reading somewhere that an academic’s first allegiance is to his discipline, then his department and finally his university. We don’t have that tension as our allegiance is to the academic community that makes up the university and our aim is to provide whatever support is required to assist academic colleagues in the creation of knowledge.

    The academic community is neither a hindrance, nor a distraction. On the contrary, they are why I have worked in universities (one of which was UCL) for 18 years.

  • @jpevans

    I’m rather glad that someone has come to the defence of research managers. Perhaps we can have a dialogue now,

    You say “we have always been there”. That is not my recollection. I’d guess that the first time I heard the words ‘research manager’ or ‘research facilitator’ was within the last five years.

    I’ve been writing grant applications for over 30 years and I always did my own costings (not on the back of an envelope). It took a couple of days every five years. It took no more effort than explaining things to someone else. Someone in the Finance department would check them to make sure that the rules were obeyed, and that was it.

    It’s true that the rules for grant applications have become more complex recently, as the funding bodies have, like the universities, been overrun with bureaucrats. Now one is expected to put in all sorts of semi-true statements in order to maximise overheads, and downright untrue assessments of “impact” (though I see hope that the latter will go now).. The solution to that is not to employ people to write such stuff, but to stick to the truth.

    You mention the RAE. That exercise has generated a whole bureaucracy of its own. People who are employed to generate the sort of PR spin that (it is hoped) will impress RAE assessors. It isn’t your fault that the RAE has distorted and harmed science, but I believe that to be the case. If we had no RAE then there would be no need for an army of bureaucrats to spend time on submissions.

    That being said, the last RAE was not done too badly. In particular, the restriction to submission of only four papers was brilliant. I think that most scientists are capable of picking out their four best papers without the help of a ‘manager’.

    This article was not, of course, aimed at UCL (OK, with the exception of the comments about NLP). The problems are much the same everywhere. One interesting consequence of this article is that it resulted in a rapid invitation to visit the vice provost (research) so he could explain to me UCL’s “research management strategy”. I’m looking forward to that. Watch this space.

  • Prof Colquhoun, you comment

    “At a time when there was a redundancy committee in existence to decide which academics should be fired in my own faculty, the HR department advertised two jobs (on near professorial salaries) for people trained in neurolinguistic programming (that is a well-known sort of pseudo-scientific psychobabble, but it’s big business”.

    You’ll probably find me somewhat tedious at mentioning all this again but can you really be at all surprised at these developments? Any HR manager looking at the academic output of visiting Professors to UCL would discover material such as

    “Time, Space and Phantasy examines the connections between time, space, phantasy and sexuality in clinical practice. It explores the subtleties of the encounter between patient and analyst, addressing how aspects of the patient’s unconscious past are actualized in the present, producing new meanings that can be retranslated to the past. Throughout this text, Perelberg draws together connections between time, mental space, and phantasy showing how time is constantly reshaped in the light of new events and experiences” Perelberg is Rosine Jozef Perelberg, PhD a Training Analyst and Supervisor, Member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society and visiting Professor at the Psychoanalysis Unit, UCL. (http://www.lcp-psychotherapy.org.uk/media/50304/awa%202009.pdf)

    The HR manager probably thinks, reasonably in my opinion, that Perelberg’s ideas are viewed favourably by the academic community at UCL and that the concepts of NLP are probably not that different.. He might then assume he would attract some kudos were he to arrange a NLP session for the Staff. He is then perplexed to find some material has hit the fan and is heading his way. Not too phantastic I think.

  • What happened then David? I do hope the vice-provost had his/her normal lecture aides, like thumbscrews, iron maiden, rack, etc to help convince you of his/her strategy.

    The cynicism of ARMA is enough to make you weep.

  • @CrewsControl
    As I have said before, my opinion of the Psychoanalysis Unit, UCL does not differ greatly from yours.

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