Who’s to blame?

The outcomes of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) latest major grant round were released on Friday. As usual, there were a small number of winners and a large number of disappointed applicants*.

After the outcomes were announced, diligent quantitative researchers were rapidly crunching the numbers. Who was funded? The assessment process typically favoured men at all levels and in the open category of grants (Discovery Projects), the over 60s squashed younger applicants. In the early career specific grant category, two thirds of successful applicants were men.

The data were insightful. They reveal that evaluation of academic work favours entrenched researchers. They also reveal that the vast majority of applicants are men. Success rates are reasonably similar across gender lines.

The shocking 2/3rd men to 1/3rd women success ratio at the early career level prompted someone to draw up a neat infographic. This was accompanied on Twitter by an accusation that ARC CEO Professor Aidan Byrne had ensured that gender inequities in science remain entrenched. A further Conversation article analysing who was rewarded in ARC funding argued that Discovery Project significantly favour senior academics and do not foster innovation.

In various department meetings, I’ve heard endless opining about the quality of the reviewing of ARC grants. I’ve also heard blame for disappointing outcomes placed firmly on the ARC, rather than applicants, their research offices or their administrating organisations.

In many cases, these critiques certainly have merit. Some reviewing is sub-standard. Assessment systems that favour very senior academics are unlikely to foster innovation and reward creativity. Our major national funding body does have a key role in promoting diversity.

However, the ARC cannot solve academia’s systemic problems of being both highly risk averse and averse to diversity. If greater than two thirds of early career grant applicants are men to begin with, it seems obvious that huge structural issues are at play that reach far beyond the influence of a single CEO.

Academia is responsible for its culture. The ranks of senior academics are atrociously skewed towards white men because this is what our industry has chosen for itself. As an industry, we chose to be highly conservative. We could instigate change, but we chose not to.

While the ARC and government policy can help us redress our issues, we cannot abnegate our own responsibilities. Academics (of some form or another) comprise the entirety of the applicants to the ARC, the (sometimes poor) reviewers of grants and the College of Experts who oversee the selection process. When we complain that the ARC is useless because a spurious review took place, we must at least make some acknowledgement that academia imposes this systems onto itself and enacts it.

We must stop blaming others for our industry’s woes*. The longer we seek to point blame elsewhere, the longer we prevaricate.

* I was very pleased to be in the minority of successful early career applicants. Thanks to everyone who has helped me!

* I errantly voiced this idea on Twitter and would like to pre-emptively point out that I don’t think and never have thought that women do not succeed in academia because they are sh*t. I think women are great.


8 thoughts on “Who’s to blame?

  1. To start critically and slowly becoming one of those more senior researchers: Is there any evidence that they are less innovative than younger researchers?

    The actors in this game may all be academics, but that is no reason not to blame the ARC, who makes the rules. That only some reviewer do not do a good job is a miracle. The rules are such that there is no incentive to write good reviews. To call the current project funding system competitive is calling state companies vying for orders from the central planners in Moscow a competitive economy. That the College of Experts functions somewhat is a miracle for the same reason. These miracles show the high working ethics of the academics involved, but in the end the system needs to change. The people making the decisions need to have skin in the game. The countries in Eastern Europe became a lot richer when they changed from a planning to a market economy. Same people, different rules.

    To end on a nicer note, congratulations getting funded. Well deserved if the intellectual level and honesty of your blogging is a good proxy.

    • Good point, I guess it’s often said but poorly scrutinised that senior researchers are less innovative. I suppose my concerns are centred predominantly around the idea that the ARC has the capacity to ensure gender parity in successful proposals. Thank you for your encouragement!

      • It may be my male bias and the situation in my surrounding may be better than average, but I have the feeling that the main reason for the lack of women in science are the terrible labour conditions. Males seem to care less about that, while many of the smartest women in our group have moved to the weather service, which offers intellectually challenging jobs with job security and a private life. That largely brings us back to the destruction of science by the modern fake-competition project citation-index micro-mismanagement science system.

      • I guess that if you are consistent, you would value the opinion of Sophie over the opinion of an old man.

        Again did not see any evidence. That there exist people who do innovative Nobel research in their thirties does not not even prove that they are more prevalent.

        Even if Schmidt would have provided evidence that people in their thirties (interestingly he did not say younger than 30) have a higher chance of doing Nobel price research, that would still not prove much. That could equally well mean that once you do that kind of research they give you a management job and you will never have the opportunity to concentrate on science any more.

        We waste so much resources by making managers out of our best scientists rather than hiring managers to do the management. At least in Germany where the professors have to sign of that the cleaning lady did her work and that the snow was removed in winter. Where they spend a large part of their time fighting their colleagues over limited university resources. Write and review research proposals for the central planners rather than do research. And so on.

      • I’m not sure the younger people are inherently more innovative. But I do agree that good researchers end up with less research time as they progress. Meanwhile, younger academics are increasingly rewarded for high volume publication. I often feel that I’ve been steered from interesting lines of thought. Anytime I’ve ventured above the parapet, I’ve been pulled back by well-meaning guardians, or pushed down by obstinate reviewers, seemingly unwilling to consider the merit of something a little different. So why bother gambling on something that may leave you empty handed when a “bread-and-butter” paper can be churned out in a matter of weeks or months? As a result, academia disincentivises novelty in ECRs in a way that I’m not sure it always has and a result, who is left with the thought space to be innovative?

      • My way out is to have a mix of studies. Some that are sure to generate results for “productivity” and once in a while a higher risk study to keep doing science interesting. Being older, my reputation is more stable and that makes it less risky to go for high risk research. That is one of the reasons I would be curious to see evidence, that could compensate for young people liking risk more.

        Young people are better in raw brain power, but that is much less important for science than people tend to think. Once found the claim that young people are better in memory tasks in the lab, which test for raw power, while older people were better at memory tasks in real life because they have developed strategies to help them.

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