Janine Pickering is a senior consultant for CIS Consulting and Implementation Services. She works with individuals, teams, and organisations to design and implement positive workplace change.
Her passion lies at the interface of industry and academia where innovation thrives. So, it was a natural next step to include the role of ‘pracademic’ in her career portfolio. In this, she combines her consulting expertise with part-time lecturing/tutoring and research at Swinburne University. Her PhD is in Economic Sociology, with research interests in gender, work and organisations. She can be contacted via LinkedIn.
I have a bee in my bonnet about the impact of grant funding on women’s research careers so, last year, I made a submission to the Senate Inquiry into Funding Australia’s Research.
Although gender equity was not the main focus of the Inquiry, it is a crucial issue for productivity in research, hence several submissions raised it. The submission from the Australian Academy of Science EMCR Forum, for example, highlighted the significant disadvantages to women and minorities in the competitive funding process due to systemic biases and poor evaluation of track record relative to opportunity.
On reading the final report (722 Kb PDF), it was apparent that most of the Inquiry submissions as well as the Committee’s recommendations were focused on iterative changes to the current system, not a complete overhaul. However, based on my PhD research (2010 – 2015) into gender dynamics in biotech organisations (2.27 Mb PDF), I believe a tweaking of the current funding system will have only minimal impact on the outcomes for women in research and, consequently, on research productivity. My research was specific to science but I expect is equally relevant to the humanities and other areas.
I compared the career outcomes of women and men in biotechnology. A major finding was that women are more likely to become managers in commercial biotech firms than in public research organisations and, when they do, they hold management roles with relatively similar responsibilities and pay to men. In contrast, in public research organisations such as universities and research institutes, women who become managers tend to congregate in lower level management positions.
According to my research participants, one reason for this poor gender equity outcome in public research is the system of grant funding.
Essentially, the system determines: a) how productivity is defined; and b) how work is organised. These two factors generally disadvantage anyone with responsibilities outside of work, with women disproportionately penalised as they are the great majority who continue to shoulder more responsibility for family care.
Grants and productivity
In public research institutions, staff promotions are often directly linked to grants. But when ‘the system’ drives decisions about who gets promoted, publications are recognised disproportionately above any other measure of a researcher’s productivity. This time-based assessment of productivity often disadvantages anyone who has responsibilities outside work or takes time out for family care. While there is some consideration of the impact of career breaks on track record, this is difficult to assess and relies on the discretion of reviewers. This begs the question, ‘How many papers is a baby worth?’ (125 Kb PDF).
Meanwhile, other avenues for career progression are very limited in public sector research. For example, teamwork, communication and management skills are paid scant attention in the competitive grants system. These skills are considered integral to productivity in commercial biotech and provide a pathway into management. In public research, however, the preoccupation with publications means that team contributions are often overlooked and team leadership potential goes unrealised.
“You could actually make someone else’s project much more productive because you’ve spent the time counselling the junior staff, sorting out the lab problems, making sure that people actually get on together, drawing new collaborations together between people who never would have thought they could work together before. I mean, this all rings true, right? Women around me do this very well but they’re not going to get official [grant] recognition if they’re renowned for that.”– Senior Research Manager, Public Research Organisation
Grants and the way work is organised
Shared work arrangements and support from colleagues can alleviate the pressure on individuals during peak work periods, and are especially helpful to anyone combining work and family or other responsibilities. However, this can be difficult to organise in a competitive grant-driven environment.
With grants tied to individual researchers and specific projects, public research organisations have limited funds or flexibility to manage the institution holistically. For example, there is limited scope to coordinate the movement of staff into high priority projects according to the demands of the work; spread the workload more evenly; employ additional staff to assist with peak loads; create part-time roles; and cover staff absences or career breaks. By contrast, these organisational strategies are commonly used in commercial biotech to optimise productivity, meet deadlines and share the load across the whole team.
Appointment, tenure and promotion are directly linked to grants in many public research organisations, creating high levels of job insecurity. This is further compounded by the low success rate for grant applications. My research shows the proportion of managers on term appointments in the Victorian public biotech sector (56 percent) is significantly higher than the proportion on term appointments in Victorian biotech firms (20.5 percent). And, within the public sector, the proportion of managers on terms is higher in research institutes (62 percent) where there is a greater reliance on grants, than in universities (38 percent).
Furthermore, this job insecurity is personalised. With grants awarded to individuals or teams led by a Chief Investigator (CI), those individuals can be under extreme pressure to win further grant funding to employ their team. Even though they work in large organisations, they face similar pressures to the self-employed or small business owners.
“There’s a degree of constancy required in academia. You’re the person on a contract, you’re responsible for getting the contracts, you’ve got all these people working for you and you can give them no certainty or anything. It would be tough.”– CEO, Biotech Firm
Long hours and no breaks
The administrative load and constant pressure created by the grants system drives long hours in public sector research, and those with family or other outside responsibilities feel the impact the most. While researchers generally accept the need for long hours in an internationally competitive race for discovery, many feel ‘burnt out’ from this additional load. For some, it’s the last straw and drives them from the sector.
“If only they could change the grants system so there is a lesser requirement to apply, at least less often, so I can have time to be creative without thinking do I need to write another grant.”– Senior Research Manager, Public Research Organisation
The normal career path in scientific research continues to be linear, continuous and full-time. Despite policies to the contrary, there is a strong perception that career breaks or part-time work are not feasible at senior levels. High-achieving women and men focused on productivity are sensitive to these perceptions and therefore limit their parental or other leave to protect their careers, and are reluctant to take up part-time arrangements. In contrast, in biotech, part-time work is normalised for both men and women, including at the management level.
Is there a better way to fund research?
Although dissatisfaction with ‘the system’ is rife, it is generally assumed that competitive grants are the best way to allocate research funding. Perhaps this is because scientists are socialised to believe in competition from their early career training and they have become inured to this way of working.
However, it seems counterproductive to rely so heavily on a relatively small number of elite scientists and risk burning them out, while other talented researchers fall by the wayside. The unreasonable workload, job insecurity and narrow view of productivity associated with grant funding leads to the under-utilisation of highly qualified researchers.
To facilitate real change, I believe Australia should move away from a centralised grants system focused on individual scientists and toward block funding of whole institutions. This could still be competitive and based on organisational performance but would provide research organisations the autonomy and flexibility to manage work in a way that provides opportunity for everyone to contribute to their best ability. Team leadership potential could be assessed at the local level and the appointment and promotion of scientists and team leaders ‘decoupled’ from the award of grants.
This is a ‘shared risk’ model where both organisations and individuals shoulder responsibility for scientific productivity, rather than leaving individual scientists to shoulder all the risks as de facto self-employed contractors constantly reapplying for funding.
From a public accountability perspective, I argue this model would make individual research institutes more accountable for effective management of their workforce, help address the under-representation of women at senior levels, and thereby capitalise on the public investment in education.
Indeed, public research organisations could learn some lessons from the commercial biotech sector on what works for women.