Sabine speaking some truth

Just had to share here.

Curious if it sparks a discussion →

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“… most of academic research is actually bullshit”, kinda strong quote.

Indeed, technically it isn’t “actually bullshit” it is just “metaphorically bullshit”. But it is hard to escape that there is indeed a lot of bullshit, and that the grant funding model encourages bullshit.

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Yes, the incentive structure encourages bullshit. Big science gets bigger and bigger because that’s where the big money is.

It is the pyramid structure that troubles me the most. Professor gets his students to work for free, who aspire to be professors with their own grad students, and so on.

But there is no denying that academia is the ONLY place to get the training and depth and rigour. Very few individuals have what it takes to go the autodidactic route.

Yes, and no. There is a lot of independence which can support a certain way of thinking. And there is an expectation to spent time reading around subjects which can provide depth. An obsessive side of things can encourage rigour.

But your training is so incredibly dependent on your supervisor and their attitude to research. The people who flourish in the, publish with buzzwords to get grants mentality, are often not focussing on rigour or depth.

I know many physics research groups that don’t understand basic statistics, and get very upset if you point out that their conclusions are not backed up by their results… which is not an incentive to do rigorous statistics.

I had good supervisors during my time as a PhD student and a post-doc, but I certainly learned far more about rigour when I was a Post Doc at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) rather than in a university. NIST also encouraged me to broaden my knowledge far more.

Why? Because the research side of NIST was still focussed on pure research. Pure research within a specific domain (ours was improving measurements of physical quantities and fundamental constants). But we had guaranteed funding, so we didn’t chase buzz words, we didn’t waste crazy amounts of time on grant proposals, we didn’t publish that often because we focussed on the big picture and published when we really had something worth reading. This made it far less time competitive inside NIST allowing good informal collaboration and helping with each others work.

NIST was part of the “Department of Commerce”, within the same departments as research groups there were calibration services to external customers. This makes NIST research seem like an R&D arm of a business. However, I never was asked to justify what the business motives of measuring the Universal Constant of Gravitation was… because there were none, the end goal was to understand science better and publish papers on it. NIST was particularly successful at pure research as shown by the number of Nobel Prizes is won in a short time.

Compare that to academic research in a university. Universities push very hard now for working with business, for getting patents, focussing on challenges needed for the economy in the next 3-5 years. Moving from NIST to the University of Bath, I was shocked by how business focussed they were as an institution. It seemed like the university management viewed academia as a service providing highly subsidised R&D to businesses. I think partly this is very much the direction UK academia has moved towards, though I think Bath is perhaps more fervently pushing that model than some institutions.

I think if we are to look at academic research, we need to look at how it was funded in the past, and how organisations like NIST and other government research laboratories operate. Because without that we loose the depth and the rigour as we chase buzzwords and meaningless statistics.

From a more personal perspective. NIST was probably the catalyst of the death of my academic career. I could have probably stayed at NIST.

I personally was on short term contracts as I wasn’t a US citizen, so I couldn’t get a permanent position, but most American’s were on fixed positions and NIST was very good at supporting foreign researchers through the Visa/Green Card/ Citizenship route. However, for personal reasons I was not well suited to living in America, so I moved back to the UK.

When I did move back to the UK as a Post-Doc and started applying for fellowships and permanent academic positions. I realised I had no experience of grant writing, I had no history of grant success on my CV. Also a medium number of very rigorous papers in respected but not flamboyantly “impactful” journals, gave me poor publication metrics.

I was explicitly told by a Head of Department when interviewing at a different UK university that “This university is very short on people like you who have real experience developing instrumentation, however I could not contemplate hiring someone with your h-index”. He went on to say other nice things about being impressed with my research and had lots of good things to say about NIST…

But I think therein lies the problem. Academia is no longer focussed on rigour or depth. It is focussed on grant money, optimising arbitrary metrics, and attracting industry partnerships.

We still associate it with rigour and depth, and some practices from an era of rigour and depth are still present. But rigour and depth are punished, and they are dying out. And eventually the wheels will fall off an people outside academia will also start to realise that the rigour is gone and Academia will loose much of its worth and value.

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From Julian → “But we had guaranteed funding, so we didn’t chase buzz words, we didn’t waste crazy amounts of time on grant proposals, we didn’t publish that often because we focused on the big picture and published when we really had something worth reading.”

I think the key is guaranteed funding and trusting people to do the right thing.

The thing is, some people will never do the right thing. And all jobs have a way of dealing with that, none are perfect.

The current system punishes everyone, burdening with time consuming yet unproductive tasks, so as to prove that no one is lazy or unproductive. Collectively far more time and money is wasted than could be by a few lazy or unproductive researchers with guaranteed funding.

I think there is an argument for keeping grants for specific things. For example, you have a lab, you need your lab space, your lab consumables, PhD students, maybe a post doc or two is your are senior enough. You shouldn’t need a grant to keep that going, you should be focussed on the long term. However, if you need £500k for a fancy new piece of equipment, that seems to be where grant funding makes sense.

In the current system you get all sorts of mad situations were someone gets a £1m+ grant. Buys that £500k instrument, employs a couple of post-docs, buys a load of consumables. Then fails to get a follow up grant accepted. At the end of the grant they have not quite finished the big project, they have to panic-spend the remaining budget on anything that may be useful at some point before the money evaporate. The post-docs loose their jobs and have to move on, shedding the group of the institutional knowledge. And the equipment gets largely mothballed, and instead ends up being used by masters students for project work with a random mish-mash of consumables that were never properly sorted from that final mad rush of ordering. How was that a good use of this piece of equipment!?

The system reminds me of a phrase we used to use about the ineffective and overly bureaucratic US Government procurement system:
“We will save money, no matter how much it costs”

Doesn’t quite fit, but the sentiment is similar.

“We will maximize outputs, no matter the loss in productivity”

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similar posts (old school blogs)

which refers to:
which also references the business-as-usualness of academia.