Do your peers go around talking about how that colleague is ‘useless’ or a ‘lost cause’ when it comes to research?
How prevalent is the sentiment that – if you’re not a proven, grant-landing researcher – you’re not worthwhile having in the contemporary university system?
This has been something I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while. A recent anecdote from a colleague spurred me to consolidate my thinking about these exclusionary ideas surrounding research productivity and notions of staff worth.
A colleague told me about a mid-career academic in their department. This academic had never landed a significant competitive grant, wasn’t publishing very well (standard of journal papers was questionable) or consistently (lots of ‘revise and resubmits’ in the top drawer that never made it to the next stage). He was bitter and defensive about his research track-record, often hostile to feedback, and he appeared to withdraw from broader faculty research life.
He was considered a lost cause. Someone who would never be much chop in the research game.
This sentiment filtered up, so much so that his senior researchers/managers stopped considering him in any research context. Targeted opportunities for collaboration, research mentoring, or publication weren’t denied, as such, they just never appeared.
Until there was a concerted shift on a few institutional levels.
Almost simultaneously, the academic found himself with a new head of department, research director, and faculty research executive. New research schemes – open to all – were fed through the faculty and department. Strategic money was made available to build track-records, collaborations, and develop larger grant proposals. Designated research development staff were put on to facilitate all things research grant-wise; having one person as the ‘go-to’ for grant questions made everything seem more do-able.
The academic started signing up for a few workshops about publications and writing. He turned up to the seminars are ‘how to write a good grant application’. He threw his hat in the major grant rounds again, and took critique as all part of the game (rather than personal attack and denigration). A senior researcher has been mentoring him about how to deal with publication feedback.
From all of this, the academic gained information and cultivated a certain sense of savvy-ness about the research landscape. He pulled himself out of the research funk he was in. The indirect advantage of all this new activity was meeting his peers and colleagues from other sections of the university/faculty, and feeling as if he is a part of a research community (one that has its own inconsistencies and varying levels of achievement).
After a while, this academic started participating in grant review programs in his faculty; he started feeling as if he had enough experience that he could give back and share with others.
He still hasn’t landed a big competitive grant, but his publications have steadied and are improving in quality, and he’s become an active – even generous – participant in peer research activities around the faculty.
All this took place over less than three years.
When I was writing the post on myths about research cultures, I mentioned that it’s ill-advised to sideline academics as research inactive before giving these staff the resources (including time) to change the situation.
I wanted to unpack this a bit more because it’s a difficult thing, moving from not doing much research (or not having research on your radar) to being required to roll out quality publications and be competitive for grant applications in the next year (or sometimes even three).
Because it doesn’t happen just like that. It’s not like flicking a switch. With the anecdote above, major changes happened around that academic to shift his own and others’ attitudes, and it also depended, of course, on the academic’s own initiative. He had to make the decision to re-engage with faculty research structures, and build on his own networks and expertise.
It is particularly hard to get someone to a productive research zone if they are feeling pressured to perform, have had little or no mentoring (or bad forms of mentoring), and have been previously burnt by research activity (e.g. grant rounds and scathing assessments).
But, as this story shows, it’s not impossible.
If a staff member is going to be part of your organisation for at least the next couple of decades, how can it not be worthwhile investing in their research development?
Within about three years, the researcher went from being a “lost cause” and difficult staff member to being back on the institutional/faculty radar in a positive, collegial way.
Thinking that ‘spills’ or VSPs (voluntary severance packages) are the only answers is narrow thinking. The price paid in staff morale is always high, and damage often long-term.
It pays for academic research executives to audit the research culture of their organisation. Then address the weaknesses and gaps in that system before deciding that staff members are necessarily the ones at fault for below-par research performance. Yes, some may be performing well despite your system’s inadequacies, but why not create a context where they’re not forced to triumph against the odds, but thriving and excelling in strong, supportive institutional environments?