If you know someone who works in academia, chances are they’ve told you that research takes time. A lot of time, that is. But does it have to?
It’s 3:15pm on an overcast Wednesday afternoon. A group of PhD students, postdocs and senior academics sit down to discuss their latest paper. They’re “just finishing” the write-up, almost ready to submit to a journal. This phase has already been in motion for months, and could well take another week or two.
Of course, this sounds monumentally inefficient to corporate ears. In a world where time is money, three months of tweaking and wrangling could not be tolerated. So why is it acceptable in academia? Because nobody is in charge! Many universities suffer from a middle management leadership vacuum; the combined result of lack of training and unwise promotions.
It is ironic that renowned bastions of learning have fallen so far behind their industrial counterparts when it comes to research efficiency. When you consider that lecturers need no teacher training, supervisors no management expertise, and interviewers no subconscious bias training, the problem becomes less surprising. No wonder academia is leading the way on gender inequality.
The solution – a cultural shake-up. Universities must offer more teaching-only posts, breaking the vicious cycle which sees disgruntled researchers forced to lecture badly, and excellent teachers forced out from lack of research output. Senior management should mandate leadership training for group leaders and supervisors, empowering them to manage effectively and motivate their students. Doctoral candidates, for that matter, might also benefit from a course in followership, the latest business fashion. Perhaps most importantly, higher education needs to stop hiring, firing and promoting based purely on research brilliance, with no regard for leadership, teamwork and communication skills.
Conveniently, higher education has ready made role-models in industrial research organisations. Bell Labs is a good example. Not long ago this once famous institution was in the doldrums, even forced to shut down for a period. But under the inspirational leadership of Marcus Weldon, the laboratory is undergoing a renaissance. Undoubtedly much of this progress is built on Marcus’ clear strategic goals and emphasis on well-organised collaboration.
Universities might even find inspiration closer to home. Engineering departments worldwide are developing ever-closer ties to industry, with beneficial effects on research culture. From machine learning to aerospace, corporate backing provides not only money but also business sense and career development. These links advantage researchers with some client-facing facets, not the stuffy chalk-covered supermind of yesteryear. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for pure research – far from it. But insular positions ought to be exceptional, rather than the norm.
At the Scopus Early Career Researcher Awards a few weeks ago, Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed rightly bemoaned the loss of young research talent from academia. The threefold frustrations of poor job security, hackneyed management and desultory training hung unspoken in the air. If universities, journals and learned societies are serious about tackling this problem they’ll need a revolution. It’s time for the 21st century university. Let’s get down to the business of research.