Lies jumped the queue to be first in line… Research policy and research bureaucracy

It might be a career-limiting move to opine too much about research bureaucracy when you’re doing your level best to punch into an academic career, but danger is the spice of life and these hot takes aren’t going to pepper themselves.

Over on The Research Whisperer, Tseen Khoo has raised a puzzle about the impact of university metrics on the way that researchers undertake their work stating that she doesn’t need money to do her research.  Meanwhile, on the LSE Review of Books, Derek Dunne talks about the historical relationship between bureaucracy and research (with bureaucracy being a form of social control).  They are both interesting pieces, strongly flavoured by personal experience and anecdote, but I’m not sure that they completely grasp the puzzle at hand.

So my dealio is the way that cultural expressions form part of our regulatory framework.  When a catastrophe happens and the government says ‘Hey, we are going to do something about this!’, the legal question is sort of secondary because no legal framework is fast enough to stop the government in an emergency situation.  What matters more is the government’s ability to persuade everybody (at least in the short term) that they have the powers necessary to do what they want to do.

This is an area of research that does not require a bucketload of cash for the purposes of research itself (a circumstance similar to Tseen’s).  But it does require cash to build research capacity in the discipline.  I need cash for conferences.  I need cash for engagement with people who can use my research (or who should be aware of my research).  I need cash to train PhD students and fund postdocs.  I need cash for all the ancillary aspects of research that make sure there will be a generation of researchers after me.

If I want legal theory to thrive and survive, I need to make sure there’s continued investment in it.  Not necessarily directly into the research itself, but into the infrastructure that makes my research area effective.

Further, I feel like I have an obligation towards related disciplines.  Sure, I might not need cash directly into my own research, but what can I do to promote the career of somebody else?  If I want collaborators at the end of my PhD for the purposes of interdisciplinary research projects, then I need to make sure they’re there in secure jobs.  I weaken my chances of being successful in my field if I leave it to chance that there will be a team waiting for me.

But there’s a bigger question raised in Tseen’s piece and it’s the aspect that links with Derek’s piece: the idea of administration and metrics for their own sake.  Tseen states:

In our current academic world, you cannot say you don’t need money for research. You can’t say it because it’s a career-limiting move. Because, if you say that, it means you don’t intend to apply for funding and funding is now a heavily calculated part of our academic lives. It’s a promotion benchmark – ‘Level C academics in X discipline are expected to bring in Y amount of funding each year’. What? You’re producing more than your benchmarked number of publications, presenting at conferences, collaborating with partners and colleagues across the world, doing public engagement to within an inch of your life? But you don’t have any grants? BAH-BOW!

These situations are invariably a failure of administrative imagination, where process absolutely dominates outcomes.  If you’re managing an academic unit, you’re interested in the performance of that unit at the aggregate.  In a nutshell, you want the academic unit to have a reputation for excellence (however understood).  From that goal, you derive what measures go into building that reputation for excellence.  Then you manage individual contributions to that aggregate performance.  One person might be a publications powerhouse.  Another might have industry connexions.  Another might excel at teaching.  And so on and so forth, depending on the unit.

But what tends to happen is less inspiring.  The government establishes what metrics will result in either funding (for example, HERDC) or rankings (for example, ERA).  Then university managers use performance in those bureaucratic processes to set benchmarks for individual academics.  This has a number of known problems: editing an academic journal is essential maintenance of the research infrastructure that everybody else uses, but it doesn’t (usually) contribute to any of the metrics that result in funding or rankings.  At the system level, this means people edit journals for ‘free’.

Why is this the case?  Because universities are taxpayer-funded and taxpayer funding must be used ethically, efficiently, and effectively.  That means performance-driven allocations of funding.  That means objective metrics.  That means ensuring individuals contribute directly to those metrics.

For my money, it is short-sighted.  University metrics come and go (there’s no longer HERDC points for publications, for example) and yet reputations for excellence are so difficult to build and easy to harm.  Far better, I think, for a university manager to be (at some level) government-neutral in the setting of their plans and focus on the kinds of outcomes that they think demonstrate excellence.

When you do that, you make it easier to have difficult conversations about managing performance.  Like any workplace, there are people who are absolutely in the wrong job.  They don’t publish anything.  They don’t get grants.  They barely teach and, when they do, their SELTs are in the toilet.  Whenever people bemoan the existence of metrics in academia, we have to wonder how they would manage people who are taking up resources that would be better allocated elsewhere.  Framed differently, how do you have the conversation with the fixed-term Level B that the institution can’t afford to move them into secure employment when they’re outperforming the underperforming Level C who secured a job back in the 1990s?  It’s something that I worry about a lot: what if I have to uproot my life and move across the country or internationally because there’s not enough growth in the research workforce to mitigate the dead wood problem?

To that end, Derek’s piece is entirely right when he says that bureaucracy is about social control:

Put simply, bureaucracy is a form of social control. This may not be how we normally think of the licensing agreements, travel visas and sign-in sheets that we encounter on a daily basis. Paperwork can seem like the ‘white noise’ of our work, which we aim to tune out. Like ticking the box beside ‘Accept Terms and Conditions’, we know not what we do. But in my research, I’ve found that it is all the more important to listen carefully to such background noise for what it has to say about social organisation and even artistic expression. It is surprising that something that exerts so much power over our working lives is afforded so little time for critical reflection by academics. Perhaps all of us should be paying more attention to the forms that are put in front of us and expect our acquiescence, whether that is the photocopier licence or the online application we should probably get back to writing.

University bureaucracy should have some purpose.  And by purpose, I mean more than ‘makes an administrator’s job easier’ (or, worse, ‘keeps an administrator employed’).  Frequently, those purposes are a result of government policy.  You need to go through this laborious process because the Australian Research Council says so.  It doesn’t serve any other purpose than meeting the ARC’s requirements (and the ARC keeps its departmental costs down by externalising a lot of bureaucracy: it does not tend to wear the costs of its policy decisions).

In your ideal situation, there would be some kind of shared culture between academics and administrators.  As an academic, I want to build the reputation of my research unit.  That means contributing to securing research funding that will help my research unit to grow and will build capacity in the environment to undertake the research I want to do.  But, at the same time, as a research administrator, I want to ensure my processes and procedures are adapted to purposes that build the reputation of my research unit.  That means thinking about the research unit in the aggregate.  It means thinking about the bureaucratic framework of the organisation to ensure that administrative work is allocated to where it is most efficient and, even then, only done when necessary to give effect to some proper purpose.

Maybe this is utopian, but it’s my goal for the sort of research unit that I want to lead.

I can dream.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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