For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes may change in the future.
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This statement is standard boilerplate at a lot of universities (and other organisations). It is designed to demonstrate due diligence in reducing risk, I think.
For me, this statement encapsulates the disjunction between where our researchers are going, and where the university administration stands. Research is becoming more and more open. Open journals, open data, open everything.
As administrators, we remain steadfastly closed. Grant applications are confidential. Research contracts are confidential. Even our emails are confidential. There are good reasons for this confidentiality, in some instances. A lot of the time, though, confidentiality in administration is business-as-usual atrophy. An all-pervasive attitude that we don’t even think about anymore.
This blog is a good example of that. For the last seven years, we’ve published an article every week (almost) about doing research in academia. All the articles are available for everybody to read. When we first proposed this idea, our manager was quite suspicious. Why would we want to give away the university’s “secret sauce”? Wouldn’t that make us less competitive? Actually, when it comes to constructing a good budget, or a Gantt chart, or most anything else about what we do, there is no secret sauce. It is all standard stuff. But thinking about our professional practice every week, and publishing it openly for others, has been enormously beneficial.
Lately, I’ve been trying to take this administrative openness a step further. I’ve been arguing that the development programs that I run should be open to anyone, whether they come from my university or not. My blueprint here is Shut Up and Write. Every Friday morning, we invite all comers to join us in a cafe to get some writing done. Twenty-five minutes at a time, we shut up and write. Then we take five minutes to chat and get a coffee. Then we do it all again and again. Postgrad students love this, and we get students from universities all over Melbourne, as well as some creative writers and other non-academic bods. We get to talk about what is happening in people’s lives in a casual, relaxed manner. It’s nice.
I’m trying to bring that sense of openness and sharing to other research training programs that I run. It makes sense to me. My university isn’t research intensive, so there isn’t a lot of depth in any given discipline. Having people from other universities in the room gives my peeps some sense of where the level of competition is. Plus… it’s nice.
It also means that I need to lift my game (which is hard). If I’m running something that is open to strangers, I need to think a bit harder about how I present it, how I advertise it, and how I run it. It can’t be my usual last-minute dash. So, I produce a better program.
When I’ve presented this idea to my bosses, it has generally been well received. But I’ve had to consciously turn my thinking in that direction and ask permission to do it. I’m so used to thinking about keeping everything in-house and close to the chest. That attitude is so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine an open administrative world.
Shut Up and Write works for people who have laptops, and who can work without a bookshelf of books and a filing cabinet of notes behind them. That’s me. With my documents in the cloud, I can get them from anywhere and share them with anyone. My mobile phone is so much a part of my practice now that I’m surprised when my desk phone rings. I can work anywhere.
I know that because I worked in China for six months. If you can work through the Great Firewall of China, you can work anywhere that has Internet. Time-zones aside, there is very little that stops us from working wherever we are, except for convention. Sure, face-to-face meetings are better for understanding what your researchers are actually trying to do, but apart from that, most of my working life is email. I can email from anywhere.
The trouble is, so can anyone else. While our researchers have become more open, they’ve also become more insecure. It is my understanding that 60% of the staff at my university are paid by the hour, on employment contracts similar to what they would have if they were stacking shelves at a supermarket. People may argue over that percentage, but I think that everybody agrees that the percentage itself is growing, not shrinking.
If I was to make one prediction today, it would be that our employment will get less secure into the future. Partly, that is because I think that we are stuck with economic rationalism for the foreseeable future. Partly, it is because there are a lot of people in the world who can do my job just as well as I can, but much more cheaply.
I work in grant development. At its most basic, my job works like this:
Professor Needs-Grant tells me that she is going to apply for a Great Big grant, from the Nice Ideas Research Council. I read the rules and guidelines for the Great Big grant scheme. I do a bit of due diligence on the Nice Ideas Research Council, looking at what (and who) they have funded in the past. Then I read Prof Needs-Grant’s draft and offer suggestions on how to improve it. If I have time (and the application needs it) I might rewrite chunks of the application, to clarify things and provide a working example of how it could be written. If necessary, I might build a draft budget from Prof Needs-Grant’s shopping list. My advice is based on being an intelligent reader (so I can spot a logical fallacy), who has read a lot of grant applications (so I can provide strategic advice) and knows the rules for the scheme (so I can advise on compliance matters).
If you believe that I’m the only person who can do that, then you are fooling yourself. No secret sauce, remember. I cost my university about A$140,000 per annum, once you take into account my seniority, length of service and salary on-costs. If you believe that there aren’t legions of people out there who could do my job as well as I could for half the cost, you are doubly fooling yourself. The university would save A$20,000 just by moving me from a permanent contract to a paid-by-the-hour contract. Imagine what my university would save if they gave my job to any one of the millions of seriously smart, seriously keen, seriously underpaid research administrators in China, India, Africa…pretty much anywhere actually. You can take your pick.
At the moment, one of the things that protects me is our need for confidentiality. Senior researchers would get seriously worried if their draft application was being sent to someone that they didn’t know, and didn’t trust, in another country. They trust me and the institutional structures that I work within.
It turns out, though, that not all research funding applications need to be confidential. Crowdfunding for research, for example, makes a virtue out being open with your research ideas. It is axiomatic that you can’t crowdfund in secret. You have to do it in the open, appealing to the public for funds. Confidentiality doesn’t come into the picture.
Nor does all research administration need to be provided by the university. I know this because I hire people from outside my university to provide my researchers with something that we just don’t have – decades of experience in winning tier-one grants. I hire emeritus professors to provide depth of experience at winning grants in specific disciplines.
Can I imagine a future when my job gets outsourced? Absolutely, I can. I image it happening in two different ways.
- My university might get sick of its cycle of centralising and decentralising administrative services. It might decide that its core business is teaching and research, not teaching administration and research administration. It could outsource all administration (including me).
- The university might do away with my specific function. Enterprising researchers with flexible funds could look for someone who can give them the service that they want, at a price that they can afford. They don’t need to meet face to face – email and Skype will do. They do this already for services like transcription. Why not do it for the service that I provide?
I don’t think that there is any danger of this happening any time soon. I like to think of my job as secure. In the back of my mind, though, I know it really isn’t. That doesn’t worry me too much.
What does worry me is where all this is going. Our universities are becoming more and more colonial, with a rump of secure people at the top and a sea of insecure people beneath them. We don’t have to look too far into the past to know how that plays out in the end.
Update 5 June 2018. After I wrote this, Bo Alroe commented:
In addition to the closed “culture-based” attitude you described in this article, I have sometimes observed another form of closedness.
I have implemented research management systems and consulted in that space; UK, Australia, Western Europe. What we often saw was data of such poor quality or produced so directly with internal use cases in mind, that any form of external sharing was impossible.
This was often true for data with high relevance outside of the universities such as publications, grey literature, grant records, public staff data, datasets, equipment holdings, tech transfer info, courses data, and more. Not only was it technically unfit for external sharing, the same was often also true for internal sharing; I remember one case where financial data was sorely needed in one project internally, where the finance department first refused to share it (your culture-based reflex attitude) and then when they were asked to do so by upper management, it turned out to be of too poor quality, the result of a data governance mindset in which nothing will ever be shared anyway.
Update: 12 June 2018. After I wrote this, Adam Golberg commented:
I think I’d push back a little on the idea that it’s only the confidentiality element that prevents a kind of zero-hours/contracting out of research development support for grant applications. I think if there is a “secret sauce”, it’s pre-existing relationships and reputations. It’s obviously not enough being right about a particular point, it’s about being able to turn that insight into advice that’s acted upon, even if – and perhaps especially if – it’s advice that the applicant doesn’t want to hear. I don’t think I’m necessarily any more persuasive or any more insightful than a bunch of other people who could do the job (either permanently or via less secure forms of work), but it’s that I’ve worked with that researcher before, or worked with people that the researcher knows and respects and who can vouch for me.
Of course, whether the capacity to develop relationships and/or be accessible locally in person and/or build up reputation and credibility is worth paying that extra money for is another argument.
My job has changed in the last few years such that I’m now covering a much broader patch, and I am working with a number of people I’ve never met in person. It’s interesting how much harder that’s been.