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management bollocks – DC's Improbable Science

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management bollocks

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

 

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

Now back to the Ed Biz, for a moment.  An article in Times Higher Education last week caused something of a stir.

V-cs’ candid views slip out online. 2 July 2009 By Zöe Corbyn
Prematurely released paper reveals fears of staff revolution and desire to cash in, writes Zöe Corbyn

The article refers to a paper that appeared on the web site of the journal Higher Education Quarterly. It is Perspectives of UK Vice-Chancellors on Leading Universities in a Knowledge-Based Economy by Lynn Bosetti, University of Calgary, and Keith Walker, University of Saskatchewan. The paper quotes ten different university vice-chancellors (presidents) of UK universities. Some of the comments caused quite a stir when they were quoted anonymously in an article in Times Higher Education. But the paper soon vanished and still has not reappeared. A version that lacks some of the names is expected to appear soon. The original uncensored version has now appeared on Wikileaks. Its source is no great mystery since it was available to the public for a short time.  It seems a pity if vice-chancellors want to hide their views, so here are a few quotations from the original version.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Colin Lucas, cautions:

“One of the greatest distortions is this sense that the only thing that universities are for, is to drive the economy. The core mission of universities is threatened by a narrow value system.”

Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel University until February 2006 when he became Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He’s quoted as saying

We all know that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold, often at a very high price. So universities are busy doing that – charging students a large amount of money to study in England because it is a popular destination. Branding and marketing take the font seat and education is in the back. (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)

Reflecting on the traditional role of the university, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford, Colin Lucas, is concerned that

“commodification threatens to destroy not only scholarly democracy but civilisation itself.”

“The vice-chancellor needs to have a network of people involved in ‘intelligence gathering’ to be able to swiftly deal with ‘even the faintest hint of a revolution’ (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)”

That sounds a bit like the secret police and their network of informers. Hardly a good way to get the loyalty of your staff.

“you have to lead with flow and authority.You can never be out of touch with what faculty are thinking . . . if in the end faculty don’t follow you, it isn’t because they are stupid, it’s because you are out of touch’ (S. Schwartz)”

And that seems to say that you need to know how faculty think, not in order to listen to their views, but only to know how to beat them. Perhaps it has never occurred to Steven Schwartz that he might, just occasionally, be wrong?

Drummond Bone succeeded Howard Newby (of whom more here) as vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. he also seems to regard the drive to corporatisation of univeristies as a war against his own staff.

“You need to start by setting the agenda for change, then you have to look at who is going to be a driver or champion of that change, who is going to be a passenger and who, quite frankly, is going to stand against it’ (J. Drummond Bone)”.

Steven Schwartz again.

“we filled our senior management positions with people who had never worked in universities before. The HR [human relations] person came from mining, another from banking. It’s probably made a big difference to Brunel and its ability to move, in that people aren’t weighted down with a lot of public service type history.”

This attitude seems to me to be at the heart of the problem. it is based on a mistaken idea of what it is that gives a university a good reputation. The reputation, at least in academia, is the sum of the reputations of eminent people who work there, Physiologists will think of Bernard Katz and Andrew Huxley. Pharmacologists will think of Heinz Schild and James Black, People in English literature may never have heard of them, but they will think of John Sutherland and Rosemary Ashton, Each of them gives UCL a bit of reflected glory..But nobody will think about our Public Relations attempts at corporate image building. The only way to have a great university is to have great people doing the research and teaching. Anything that makes a university unattractive to them will, in the long run, harm the place. And one thing that makes a university unattractive is the perception that it is run by people who view it as a business, and who know nothing about what makes the place great. The sort of people whom Steven Schwartz seems to have gone out of his way to employ.

I was asked recently by the head of media relations to answer some questions about UCL’s attempts to build its “corporate identity” (nice to be asked, for a change). My answer was that I though they probably did more harm than good. The reason for saying that is that they are, only too often, downright embarrassing. I’ve mentioned the examples of ‘sustainable degrees‘, the concordat fiasco and ‘research days‘. And the new-age junk forced on our research staff by Human Resources is acutely embarrassing. Luckily for UCL, all universities have pursued this corporate path, so there is nowhere to run to,

The general public, having lived through the Blair era, is able to detect vacuous spin when it hears it. And there is no shortage of that in universities now. The aim of science is to discover truth. The aim of PR is to disguise truth, They are utterly incompatible. In the words of the “unrepentant capitalist” Luke Johnson, in the Financial Times,

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

Another way to dismepower academics Steven Schwartz, with his spy network, is quite excessively conspiritorial. There is a much easier way to do it, You have a consultation. You hold open “town meetings”. The opposition then reveal themselves. Having taken the precaution of neutering the academic board, you are under no obligation to take the slightest notice of what anyone else says, and public humiliation of opponents will ensure there aren’t too many of them. I have seen this plan in action. It works rather well, in the short run.   In the long run, though, academics lose morale, loyalty and altruism when treated in that way. Vice-chancellors who behave like that are bringing their institution into disrepute.

This was poeted from the train to Edinburgh,where I’ll be giving the Paton lecture, on a related topics.

Follow-up

The modified paper has now been published in Higher Education Quarterly. And, guess what, Steven Schwartz’s name is not mentioned in it.

Des Spence, a general practitioner in Glasgow, has revealed a memorandum that was allegedly leaked from the Department of Health. It was published in the Britsh Medical Journal (17 June 2009, doi:10.1136/bmj.b2466, BMJ 2009;338:b2466). It seemed to me to deserve wider publicity, so with the author’s permission, I reproduce it here. It may also provide a suitable introduction to a forthcoming analysis of a staff survey.

Re: The use of ‘note pads’ in the NHS and allied service based agencies.

Hi, all care providers, managers of care, care managers, professions allied to care providers, carers’ carers, and stakeholders whose care is in our care. (And a big shout to all those service users who know me.)

We report the findings from a quality based review, with a strong strategic overview, on the use of “note pads” across all service user interfaces. This involved extensive consultation with focus groups and key stakeholders at blue sky thinking events (previously erroneously known as brain storming). This quality assured activity has precipitated some heavy idea showers, allowing opinion leaders to generate a national framework of joined-up thinking. This will take this important quality agenda forward. A 1000 page report is available to cascade to all relevant stakeholders.

The concentric themes underpinning this review are of confidentiality. Notes have been found on the visual interface devices on computers and writing workstations throughout the NHS work space. Although no actual breach of confidentiality has been reported, the independent external consultants reported that note pads “present a clear and present danger” to the NHS, and therefore there is an overarching responsibility to protect service users from scribbled messages in felt tip pen. Accordingly all types of note pads will be phased out in the near time continuum. A validated algorithm is also attached to aid this process going forward.

This modernising framework must deliver a paradigm shift in the use of note pads. Care provider leaders must employ all their influencing and leverage talents to win the hearts and minds of the early adopter. A holistic cradle to grave approach is needed, with ownership being key, and with a 360 degree rethink of the old think. All remaining note pads must be handed over in the next four week ” note pad armistice” to be shredded by a facilitator (who is currently undergoing specialist training) and who will sign off and complete the audit trail.

(Please note that the NHS’s email system blocks all attachments, so glossy, sustainable, wood based hard copies will be sent directly to everyone’s waste recycling receptacles.)

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2466


Spence added a footnote, Note: The BMJ’s lawyers have insisted that I make it clear that this is a spoof, just in case you were wondering.

 

Here are a few more

There is an initiative underway to determine what we do as an organisation in the realms of drug discovery. The intention is to identify internal and appropriate external capabilities to foster a pipeline of competencies that enable some of our basic research outputs to better impact healthcare.

Follow-up

This post is written in part as a distraction from a plague of lawyers, in New Zealand, here in the UK, and now in the USA (my movie, Integratative baloney@Yale, has recently been removed from YouTube. More on that coming soon).

The duty of an advocate is to take fees, and in return for those fees to display to the utmost advantage whatsoever falshoods the solicitor has put into his brief.

[ Bentham, Jeremy , The Elements of the art of packing as applied to special juries , 1821]

The letter below comes from a much-copied piece of paper that I unearthed in my office during its decennial clearout. It was typed on a manual typewriter and I have no idea where it came from or whether it is genuine. Its origin has been discussed on the internet, with no firm conclusion. This post is a miscellany of thought that followed its rediscovery.

The alleged quotation shows that there is nothing new about the cult of managerialism, at least in Whitehall. It took longer to reach universities, which are now suffering an acute case of this sad condition,

MESSAGE FROM THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON TO THE BRITISH FOREIGN OFFICE IN LONDON–

written from Central Spain, August 1812

Gentlemen,

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of
every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry
regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

  1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance.
  2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

Wellington

Substitute the options

“I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

  1. To spend my days in endless meetings and form-filling for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in central administration, or perchance
  2. To do some original science.”

It seems a bit odd to be citing approvingly Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. As a politician he was a high Tory and arch-opponent of parliamentary reform. He became prime minister in 1828, two years after
the foundation of UCL, the ‘godless institution of Gower Street”, and he was instrumental in the foundation of the traditionally religious rival to UCL, King’s College London.

Wellington’s government fell in 1830, and a Whig goverment was formed with Earl Grey as prime minister. In 1832, after many struggles, Lord John Russell managed to get the Great Reform Act passed (properly known as the Representation of the People Act 1832). This was an enormously important reform. It could be said to mark the beginning of true democracy in the UK.

The Whigs had been out of power for most of the time since the 1770s. But there were riots in the country and the Whigs advocated political reform as the best response to the unrest. Wellington, on the other hand, ignored the riots and continued with the Tory policy of opposition all reform and to any expansion of the franchise. He got the nickname “the iron duke” not because of his military prowess but because of the iron shutters he had to put on his London home, Apsley House, as protection against rioters. He lost a vote of no confidence on 15 November 1830, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Earl Grey, who put the passage of the Reform Bill in the hands of Lord John Russell

Lord John Russell was the grandfather of Bertrand Russell, whose 1935 essay, On the Value of Scepticism, had an enormous influence on me. This following quotation I find just beautiful, both the ideas, the wonderfully simple prose in which he conveys the ideas, and the Voltaire-like pure mischiefness.

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system: since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it. I am also aware (what is more serious) that it would tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops and others who live on the irrational hopes of those who have done nothing to deserve good fortune here or hereafter. In spite of these grave arguments, I maintain that a case can be made out for my paradox, and I shall try to set it forth.

Bertrand Russell, 1935. On the Value of Scepticism

Bertrand Russell was brought up by his grandfather, Lord John Russell in Pembroke Lodge at the edge of Richmond Park (I’ve been there often, but only because it became a tea room, a welcome break from marathon training in the park). I saw Russell in the distance, speaking in Trafalgar Square at a CND rally in about 1963. It is the most striking example I know of the the very short time than there has been any real democracy in the UK. I was one step away from the passing of the Reform Act, the founding of UCL and medical reforms.

The medical connections.

Adrian Desmond’s fascinating book, The Politics of Evolution. described what was happening in medicine and biology at around the same time as Wellington was deposed, and the Reform Bill was passed.  There was equal turmoil in the medical world. Radicals in London agitated for removal of the hegemony of the Royal Colleges and of Oxford and Cambridge, so proper medical schools could be established in London.  That is the atmosphere in which UCL’s medical school was born.

Many of the first staff there came from Scotland. Robert Grant, UCL’s first professor of comparative anatomy, came from Edinburgh and brought to UCL the new French ideas about evolution, especially those of Geoffroy. His influence was enormous, not least because Charles Darwin was one of his students.

The same period saw the foundation in 1823 of Thomas Wakley’s “ribald and radical” medical journal, The Lancet. The Wikipedia entry gives us a taste of Wakley’s style,

“[We deplore the] “state of society which allows various sets of mercenary, goose-brained monopolists and charlatans to usurp the highest privileges…. This is the canker-worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” Wakley, The Lancet 1838-9, 1,

“The Council of the College of Surgeons remains an irresponsible, unreformed monstrosity in the midst of English institutions – an antediluvian relic of all… that is most despotic and revolting, iniquitous and insulting, on the face of the Earth.” Wakley, The Lancet 1841-2,
2, p246.

He was especially severe on whomever he regarded as quacks. The English Homeopathic Association were “an audacious set of quacks” and its supporters “noodles and knaves, the noodles forming the majority, and the knaves using them as tools”. [5]

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.