Tag Archives: politics

Academia: Leadership and Training Required

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.

 

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Bad Science: Thomson-Reuters Publishes Flawed Ranking of Hottest Research

Thomson-Reuters has reportedly published their yearly analysis of the hottest trends in science research. Increasingly, governments and funding organisations use such documents to identify strategic priorities. So it’s profoundly disturbing that their conclusions are based on shoddy methodology and bad science!

The researchers first split recent papers into 10 broad areas, of which Physics was one. And then the problems began. According to the official document

Research fronts assigned to each of the
10 areas were ranked by total citations and the top 10 percent of the fronts in each area were extracted.

Already the authors have fallen into two fallacies. First, they have failed to normalise for the size of the field. Many fields (like Higgs phenomenology) will necessarily generate large quantities of citations due to their high visibility and current funding. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’ve cracked naturalness all of a sudden!

Second their analysis is far too coarse-grained. Physics contains many disciplines, with vastly different publication rates and average numbers of citations. Phenomenologists publish swiftly and regularly, while theorists have longer papers with slower turnover. Experimentalists often fall somewhere in the middle. Clearly the Thomson-Reuters methodology favours phenomenology over all else.

But wait, the next paragraph seems to address these concerns. To some extent they “cherry pick” the hottest research fronts to account for these issues. According to the report

Due to the different characteristics and citation behaviors in various disciplines, some fronts are much smaller than others in terms of number of core and citing papers.

Excellent, I hear you say – tell me more! But here comes more bad news. It seems there’s no information on how this cherry picking was done! There’s no mention of experts consulted in each field. No mathematical detail about how vastly different disciplines were fairly compared. Thomson-Reuters have decided that all the reader deserves is a vague placatory paragraph.

And it gets worse. It turns out that the scientific analysis wasn’t performed by a balanced international committee. It was handed off to a single country – China. Who knows, perhaps they were the lowest bidder? Of course, I couldn’t possibly comment. But it seems strange to me to pick a country famed for its grossly flawed approach to scientific funding.

Governments need to fund science based on quality and promise, not merely quantity. Thomson-Reuters simplistic analysis is bad science at its very worst. It seems to offer intelligent information but  in fact is misleading, flawed and ultimately dangerous.