Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Grimm's Tale

I should be marking. I should be reading a colleague's book. I should be writing next week's lectures. I should be replying to student and colleague e-mails. I should be researching that chapter and doing that review. I should be chasing grant funding, organising guest speakers, reading committee minutes, doing some union casework, attending meetings and organising those conferences, doing that administration and marketing and sales. Not long ago I was asked to judge whether or not a particular student would make a good Royal Marine. As none of his assessments involved killing anyone, I found it hard to say, and rather thought that the Marine recruitment people would be better placed to make that call.

Instead, for a few minutes, I want to contemplate the life and death of Stefan Grimm.

I never met, or even heard of, Professor Grimm until yesterday. He was Professor of Toxicology at Imperial College, one of the world's great science institutions. One of my sisters studied there and a cousin works there. Stefan Grimm was a great man. The things he wrote – 73 papers – will change the world without us ever knowing.

The only reason you and I have ever heard of him is because he he has been found dead, and left a note detailing his recent professional experiences. He or a friend sent out a letter to a wide range of colleagues and peers, explaining that his life and career had been made unbearable by his managers and their version of what research should be. You can read it here.

Stefan was going to be fired. Not because his work was no good: it was, as the publications list shows. No, he was going to be fired because he didn't attract the 'sexy', headline funding. He quietly raised money to pay for his ongoing research as and when he needed it. His failure was the inability to grasp that his university – which isn't so different from lots of others – care far less about the discoveries made than the headlines achieved from lottery-style grants. 'X wins £50m grant' is the dream THES or New Scientist headline, not '£50,000 for Grimm'.
Your current level of funding does not constitute the appropriate level for a professor at Imperial College. Unless you submit and are awarded a Platform grant as PI in the next 12 months we will seek to initiate disciplinary action against you. This email constitutes a warning that your performance is being monitored and that action may be brought if you fail to meet the conditions herein
Grimm was told he had to bring in £200,000 p.a. – not contractually, but let's leave that aside. His letter explains that he did that through a series of small grants, but that wasn't good enough: it had to be the stuff of headlines, or 'impact' as it's officially known in the Research Assessment Framework to which we all have to submit.

This isn't about science - it's about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving. Grimm was informed – in public – that he was to be fired, and left waiting for the axe to fall while the axe-wielder marauded around the campus boasting about it like an even more pathetic Alan Sugar.
I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money, be it professors for their grant income or students who pay 100.- pounds just to extend their write-up status. 
If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. With our apoptosis genes and the concept of Anticancer Genes we have developed something that is probably much more exciting than most other projects, including those that are heavily supported by grants.

This is not, I shouldn't have to say, how academia works. Peter Higgs, of Higgs Boson fame, said that there was 'no Eureka moment' to his work, and he only has 4 papers listed on Google Scholar: but what papers! Science rarely has a Eureka moment: it's rather a series of careful, thoughtful developments of work done by one's forebears and peers. A management which demands a Eureka a day is one which doesn't just not 'get' academia, it's a management which contradicts the academic method and it's one which has forgotten that it's meant to serve the needs of science, the arts, students and researchers, not the insatiable maw of attention seeking 'Leaders' (that's the word they use now) and the PR office. It's also a management that kills.

I am not Stefan Grimm and my university does not have the same reputation for bullying that Imperial has, but I've been a UCU caseworker for long enough to be able to recount (were it not for professional confidentiality) a long list of stories almost as awful as Stefan's. Thankfully none of my colleagues have killed themselves, but I've seen careers ended in bitterness and failure because individuals didn't fit into a corporate vision of efficiency and attention-grabbing Eureka moments. The twin demands of a marketised HE sector and the deforming and frankly dumb priorities of the REF conspire to distort educational and research processes, aided in many cases by management structures which hire those who've forgotten the basic notions of collegiality and progress through community. 'We' are just a workforce to be exploited and 'they' are the equivalent of commodities traders, ramping up the share price and being rewarded for short-termism.

My friend Kate over in Australia, while coping with cancer, has been tracing the cultural and social effects of this turn in HE. She and her colleague Richard Hall call it the 'anxiety machine', in discussing academic labour in Foucauldian terms, while Melonie Fullick (not Fullback as auto-correct keeps insisting) draws attention to the hidden levels of mental health problems in HE produced by the weight of the anxiety machine. Stefan's death would be no surprise to her, nor to any of my UCU caseworker colleagues.
Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.
Compared to many, academics have an easy life. Little manual labour, indoors, largely engaging with the things that inspire us, and passing on those passions to students and colleagues. And yet: like nurses and doctors, the work can't be quantified despite the best efforts of funding agencies and appraisers, and it never stops at 5 o'clock or when you leave the office or classroom (I got back to work last January to find students had phoned my office on Christmas Day). We already want to be good – at teaching, at advising, at researching, at planning, at writing, at supervising – yet we know that most of the people in the room are smarter than us. No wonder 'impostor syndrome' is rife on campuses. Add to that the often unexplained priorities imposed on us by a management far-removed from classroom life or active research if they ever were academics, and it's a recipe for self-imposed burnout.

One of my friends told me about his first job, in a well-known software/outsourcing company. A government tender would appear. His company would throw in an outrageously low and unsupported bid, promising too much, too soon, too cheaply. They'd win it, and only then would management tell the workforce what they had to do and how much it would cost. Inevitably costs would soar, deadlines would be missed and some of those executing the task would be fired. The management? They carried on regardless: winning the contract was all that mattered and they were richly rewarded. It strikes me that this permanent revolution/permanent crisis is now the dominant mode in HE. This is how Richard Hall puts it:
inside the University as it is restructured for value, and as it is recalibrated as a means of production, academics and students are separated and exploited through their abstract labour. Even worse, this separation afflicts and undermines the relationships that emerge between those with tenure (who are transformed into the impacted), and the precariously employed graduate student or post-doc, or the undergraduate who is forced into a precarious existence rooted in unpaid academic labour that is disciplined through a financialised existence.
I know plenty of professors and star researchers who eat, sleep and breathe research, and can't understand why their junior colleagues (try to) insist on playing with their children on a Sunday afternoon or going home at 6. 'You can't do a PhD and have a social life', my predecessor told me. I'm no star (my research record is meagre, to put it kindly), but my students and colleagues know that I'm always here, and I've lost count of the times I've been locked in the building at 10 p.m. Does it make me a better academic? You wouldn't think so if you attended my lectures, or read my papers! It makes me an anxious one. The difference is that I'll cheerfully admit it: I sometimes wonder how many of my colleagues feel the same way.

It's not just what we do, it's also how we do it. Just as Stefan discovered that doing good, unheralded work wasn't acceptable, there's a culture of individualism that goes against everything I though academia valued. What got me publishing again was co-writing. Working with someone else kept me going, partly out of a desire not to disappoint my colleague once a commitment had been made. From that wholly positive experience has come more co-writing opportunities with other people, but also some solo work. I thought that was the point: not the lone gunman but the pack of huskies dragging the academic sled along together (OK, I'll drop the metaphors now). The REF, however, has put a dampener on this: in my field we're being told that co-written work is less valuable and that journal articles are more valuable than books. The message is clear: drop your mates and churn out those papers, rather than work collegially and invest time and effort in long-form thought. It's the numbers that count, not the work itself. Ordinarily, I'd say we should look to our Professors for resistance, but they've gone. Stefan's dead. Others have been turned into cogs serving the bureaucracy. Yet more have internalised the values of the academic market because they're winners. The rest are just keeping their tenured heads down.

As Kate puts it, the culture of frenzied overwork isn't just self-harming: it harms those we acculturate into the same practices, like cycling team leaders encouraging their domestiques to dope. Is there workplace resistance? To an extent. Put a few thousand high-achievers on a campus and they'll talk. Perhaps that's why my campus no longer has a class-room and all-staff Faculty meetings have been abolished ('too negative', apparently). But we're all well aware that there are 30 eager and innocent new PhDs desperate to do each of our jobs, for less money with less security. We're also trapped by our intellectual sophistication. We're like the Byzantines waiting for the Fourth Crusade. We think the approaching hordes are on our side. They look just like us, speak our language and understand what we're for. But as the Byzantines found, the Western Christian forces weren't on their side at all. They didn't come to defend the city against the non-Christian hordes: they came to strip it of all that's valuable while it was still there. While we ponder every side of the argument, they drive people like Stefan to their deaths.

As for me: it's back to work. If I don't do it, somebody else will have to. And so it continues.


oldgirlatuni said...

It's all very sad. Desperately sad for Stefan, and for his family. My thoughts are with them.

I read Stefan's letter earlier today, and I suspect that if any other PhD students read it, they might have the same concerns as do I. Coming to the end of my PhD, I'm seriously conflicted as to whether I want to try and find a job in the University sector at all.

I love teaching, and according to the feedback I get, I'm pretty good at it. But, my university doesn't really care how good you are - because of the open nature of our feedback system, I know that my performance in the seminar room is better than most of my peers, and yet my teaching hours were slashed by 50%. Why? Well, partly to allocate hours to someone whose been awarded a research scholarship. No idea whether they can teach or not. That's going to help the NSS no end.

I came to university from the public sector, where things were bad, and when I experienced my worst days, at least I could console myself with the thought that it was much better 'out there'. But, I'm no longer sure that it is. I don't know what I'm going to do with my PhD, but I'm not convinced that I want to be part of the new university sausage machine education industry.

As an hourly paid lecturer I see some astonishingly bad management practices, and am only protected from the worst excesses of them by my temporary status. But, from Stefan's experience, the bad practices I have seen have been minor compared to Imperial College!

Anonymous said...

A very important post, but diminished by "Einstein famously published one peer-reviewed paper" - WTF? Are you suggesting Annalen der Physik, in which he published his four famous papers in 1905, was not peer-reviewed? He published a shitload of peer-reviewed papers.

The Plashing Vole said...

Ah OK, I've fallen for an urban myth about Einstein and will edit it. No need for the intemperate language though.

Philip Moriarty said...

First, and most importantly, thank you for writing this extremely important post on the shocking situation at Imperial College. Of course, and as you say, it's not just Imperial, although bullying there certainly appears to be rather more prevalent than elsewhere. There are many other universities which are mindlessly applying simplistic metrics for staff assessment. The use of grant income (unnormalised to 'productivity'), i.e. being ranked on ££s input rather than output, is particularly crass. Lots of universities are nonetheless applying this stupid (and, from certain perspectives, immoral) metric -- see http://physicsfocus.org/philip-moriarty-academics-short-change-public/.

On the secondary point re. Einstein's peer-reviewed work --

It's not at all clear that your statement on only one of Einstein's papers being peer-reviewed (in the sense we know it today) is indeed an urban myth. Other sources would back up your original statement. See http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/three-myths-about-scientific-peer-review/ and (linked to in that post), this Physics Today article: http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/58/9/10.1063/1.2117822

Anonymous said...

It depends on what you mean by peer review. In the early twentieth century an article would have been reviewed by the editor and possibly an editorial assistant -- much like a newspaper or magazine article, except that the editor had the same academic training as the author. But there was no review by anonymous expert readers.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks both - I need to add the history of the peer-review system to my extensive reading list. There's just so much to learn!

Andrew Singer said...

You took the words right out of my mouth...your sentiments are shared by many. Thank you for putting it down for me to read and commiserate over.

Anonymous said...

A great post.
You mentioned the issue of doping in cycling, doping in academia seems to be quite a taboo topic.

Rajalakshmi Nadadur said...

Thank you for this article! If early career academics such as myself have difficulties finding a job, academics already in academia are going through horrific experiences indeed. I am not directly involved with UCU but I know enough to know what corporatisation of HE has done to so many people's lives and careers. Who in the right mind thought of following management/business model for HE is beyond me! Haven't we see that perpetual corporatisation has led to some of the biggest problems (eg. economy, etc). My brother-in-law, an academic in the US, is getting out of his tenure-track position at a well-ranked 'Science school' precisely because of this. He likes spending time with his family and this unquenched demand from the university to keep producing work, he said, made him detest academia.

I do think that as long as we have academics such as yourself and those in my department speak out about these issues, we have the potential to turn this around. It is what sustains me when I apply for any academic position.

William Bruneau said...

About fifteen years ago, I began writing and publishing articles and books about the evils of "performance indicators," the RAE, and other horrid manifestations of "the new management." My spell-check won't accept "managerialism"--so it, too, has to be put between inverted commas... All that published work was read by a few (probably not a great many) people, maybe because most of it was published in Canada ! At any rate, the managerialist juggernaut continued on its destructive way. Your blog about the Stefan Grimm case gives new hope, and new impetus to the case for a massive re-think-and-reform of university governance and administration. It will do MUCH more than my lengthy whines did (you can see them at https://ubc.academia.edu/WilliamBruneau/ ). Many thanks for this paper. Like other readers, I regret deeply the passing of Stefan Grimm. Bill Bruneau, Vancouver, Canada

Historian on the Edge said...

This is a fabulous post, Voley. Well done and well said.

Chris Cooper said...

This is clearly a tragic case and needs to be publicised. But you let yourself down by not fact checking a lot of what you write. Apart from the Einstein issue, although Higgs was not extensively published, he has many more than 4 papers on Google Scholar - it took my 1 minute to check this. When you use such intemperate language in your blog e.g. "deforming and frankly dumb priorities of the REF", it behoves you to ensure that your own work is well researched. In my opinion most of the issues with the REF are not the process itself. The vast majority of the REF is academics judging other academics' research as has happened pre REF (and will happen post REF). It is the games some University's play in their perception of what will affect the REF process outcomes that is the main problem (as evidenced by David Colquhoun's blogs for example). Grant income (university managers' current obsession) plays a trivial factor in the REF process at present. And we should all be careful, tempting though it is on our blogs, not to argue from the more extreme examples (Higgs, Einstein) to general rules of behaviour. That's how the case of Beethoven entered the abortion debate for example.

Chris Cooper said...

Just to add to my note that the obsession of some managers with research income metrics rather than publication quality is a bit of a cancer in universities at present (and I do hit the £200,00/year target so this is not sour grapes). David Colquhon's blog on the Grimm affair has some useful links to this problem at true end http://www.dcscience.net/2014/12/01/publish-and-perish-at-imperial-college-london-the-death-of-stefan-grimm/

Anonymous said...

A familiar story. But if you find yourself working late and it doesn't make you any better at your job, stop doing it. I'm fortunate enough to work in an institution which states the hours we're expected to work a week: 38. I try my hardest not to work beyond that. Working excessive hours puts pressure on colleagues to either be seen to do the same, or the extra work leads to more output and that becomes the level managers expect.

We all need to stop working excessive hours, enjoy a good work-life balance and if management want more outputs, they can make some more jobs for other people. Naive, perhaps, but the alternative is to be complicit in the individualistic culture and reproduce the standards management demand.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous commenter above me: You are a dunce and your comment is insipid.

People in academia are expected to work long hours, yes. This is perhaps a problem. However, the implication that people like Grimm don't manage to produce any more results from their hard work than they would if they were lazier is insulting to academics as a whole. The implication that we aren't more productive even though we put in more hours is ridiculous.

First, you don't just tell people to "work less" on what is literally their life's work, stuff that they have devoted their lives to. Second, people who work reasonable hours in a culture where people are expected to work unreasonable hours will get fired. If you can make that choice, great. Other people have families, not to mention the fact that they're passionate about their research.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous commenter above me: You are a dunce and your comment is insipid.

People in academia are expected to work long hours, yes. This is perhaps a problem. However, the implication that people like Grimm don't manage to produce any more results from their hard work than they would if they were lazier is insulting to academics as a whole. The implication that we aren't more productive even though we put in more hours is ridiculous.

First, you don't just tell people to "work less" on what is literally their life's work, stuff that they have devoted their lives to. Second, people who work reasonable hours in a culture where people are expected to work unreasonable hours will get fired. If you can make that choice, great. Other people have families, not to mention the fact that they're passionate about their research.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous commenter above you here. First, thanks for the new hat, although i'm not a fan of the 'D' on the front. Second, i apologise if my comments weren't clear. Allow me to clarify.

1. The long hours culture and everything which goes with it isn't 'perhaps a problem' it is demonstrably a problem. Just googling 'mental health of academics' reveals a long list of stories about it.

2. I said nothing about Grimm's productivity. I was referring to the blog's author who said working until 10pm doesn't make them better, just anxious. If the only reason to work longer hours is to be seen to do so, there is something very wrong and we all need to act to stop it.

3. Many people who devote their lives to their work do so not just because of some natural drive or passion, but because of the culture they developed in allows them to. Moreover, if devoting your life to work means working 50 hours a week when the norm is 38 is taking work away from others.

4. Working your contract shouldn't result in losing your job, this is my point and that's why the expectation has to change! The only people who can do that is academics by saying no.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this important post.

One thing that puzzles me: this approach to academic excellence is not even logical. Everyone cannot, practically, receive the level of external funding expected in such proposals. It cannot be universalised for all members, even in those disciplines where there are larger pots of funding. It's a self-defeating strategy.

It simply doesn't make logical sense.

Iain Woodhouse said...

A scary and sad tale.
Especially sad given that there is no evidence that grant success is much more than random. Previous track record is about the only correlating factor - so, success leads to more success. Another case of accumulated advantage.
More views on the topic here: http://acadenema.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/the-myth-of-the-meritocratic-grant-system/

Judy D said...

Thank you, vole. I've been a professor at two UK institutions, and an academic at various levels at more. I agree completely with what you said about long hours. It isn't long hours for the appearance of it, or long hours spent even on research. It's long hours spent on all the various elements of a post that has the demands, and job description (were it ever written down) of at least four roles in the non-academic world. I've now left, and am (with two partners) running a small and successful company. Before this, I worked in a creative agency (branding) in London in a senior role. It struck me straight away that it was OK in the commercial world to use a team - designers to design, writers to write, strategists to strategise, trainers to train. In academia, I was doing the whole thing myself: not only coming up with the course content, but designing the teaching, delivering the teaching, creating the visual aids, creating the course materials, creating the course descriptions and publicity, arguing for the strategy of the thing. So academics who can't design are sitting for hours with stupid packages like Word trying to come up with course booklets. That's the teaching job. Second is admin, committees, computing equipment, student welfare, research committee, every committee you could name, plus research reporting (back to the funders) and teaching reporting (back to the institution). You could add external examining and reviewing in there too. Third is research (this is in no particular order). A ridiculous competition to get funding at far, far worse odds, and with much, much more work per bid, than I've ever encountered in commercial work (and our contracts vary between 1K and 250K. There are never more than four competitors, so you know you have a chance). Fourth is knowledge transfer. This is a further requirement of the institution and increasingly the government to show the relevance of what you're doing by getting involved with your research users. I think this is, on the whole, a Good Thing, even if your research users are other academics (we can't all be at the front end, with the general public as users). What's not a Good Thing is that it's on top of all your other jobs, and largely without incentive, or being counted as part of your legitimate effort, except in terms of their being stick if you don't (and no carrot if you do). There's a lot to love about academia but I am very glad to be out of it. The black cloud of unfulfilled expectation that hangs over every evening off, every weekend, every holiday, is a 'habit of feeling' that I'm still struggling to lose. Whatever you do, you've never done enough. A lot of academics who've never been anywhere else think this is normal, or even part of their introspective personality. Now I'm out of it, I realise (even as a company director) that it's possible to go home, stop working, and feel fine about it.

Anonymous said...

I totally concur with Judy. I gave my grant money back and walked to no job rather than stay in the one I was in. You could never do enough. I'm still twitching on a Sunday morning thinking I should be doing some ridiculous admin/ teaching/ engagement/ research bla bla task. An additional problem is that too many huge labs are sucking up research money and creating a brand of supermarket science that is totally detrimental to research. If you run a small group you often have to engage in alliances with these labs just to get a chance of winning grant funding. Unfortunately, journals and grant committees are in thrall to them. We don't need loads of money to do research....but our universities are voracious cuckoos that need feeding. Superstar PIs....artificially created and maintained by patronage skew the metrics of what we are expected to achieve. Eventually they will suck up your lab. Ideas are, seemingly, worthless currency. Women are treated poorly in this feudal system and that became ever clearer during and post recession. Perhaps new thinking spaces are needed outside of university salt mines.

Soccer Dad said...

for 50 years academia has failed to deal with this
you can produce grad students faster then the economy grows

and we are supposed to feel sorry for this guy ?

PS; as a professional, looking at the 73 publications sorted by date, there has been a huge falloff in the quality of hte journals he is publishing in
early on, top journals; last few years, 3rd rate journals
perhpas his suicide was a common thing, midlife career crisis depression ?

Anonymous said...

Soccer Dad - exemplifying the compassion and empathy his country is famous for...

Anonymous said...

Not really an urban legend, Eisten's Annus Mirabilis papers were never reviewed by external peers. They were just read and endorsed by the editors. According to the physicist and historian Daniel Kennefick, only a single paper of Einstein was subject to peer review, and Eisntein ended up retracting the submission, as he was quite upset with it.

Anonymous said...

This is a desperately sad story but it is not about Stefan Grimm who I think was a good hard-working scientist. It is about Imperial College, a once great college that is now run may administrators for their own benefit, who invite academics to walk the plank so that they can continue to live their comfortable lives. In a proper University this would not happen

Kevin Cahill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Andrews said...

Sad indeed and all too common. In his PhD Dr. Barney Glaser (of Grounded Theory fame) generated the concept of "comparative failure" among academics. Here, academics, when they compare themselves to their peers often feel failure, because someone else has got a bigger grant, published more papers, or published in a more prestigious journal. This has been compounded from the move away from Newtonian ideas of a university.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately this cancer is now in the whole of the world. Politicians have turned into managers, hence the rise of all kinds of extreme political movements in Europe - there are no leaders any more. The universities have totally lost sight of their raison d'être. This is so depressing, pay, job security etc are all being deflated. We are obsessed by markets and KPIs, we are all running around achieving nothing, but clocking up numbers like levels in computer games. We are creating new elites of super rich people, ever increasing numbers of economically excluded people and in the sandwich are over worked, stressed out people whose quality of life is being eroded like sandcastles in the tide

Anonymous said...

This is not "sad"; it is real.

And it is increasingly very prevalent.

The question is: How can one generate sincere concern among those who would prefer not to look, and who hope it will "go away"?

As long as there is a queue of people wanting to fill vacancies within such a climate (and especially for the posts which implement them), tinpot Stalins can continue to eliminate as many potential (or imagined) opponents to their schemes as they choose.

I was dismissed after 44+ years of serving my subject and my community as well as I possibly could - apparently because I was declared to be "an obstacle to the step change that is required". In other words, I was prepared to question, and to exercise judgement in ways that were seen as inconvenient. (This is my summary; the ~3000 pages submitted to the Employment Tribunal did not appear to offer any better explanation.)

And as far as I can tell, every single senior academic who contributed actively to my destruction has since been promoted to far higher management posts: one to "VC & CEO" and several to PVC roles in other universities.

The takeover by ciphers (many of whom have a weak academic credentials, but who seem to enjoy the challenge of being unnecessarily brutal - often with the active assistance of HR) may have gone too far to arrest peacefully.

Wayne Dawson said...

Well selected title: a triple entendre speaking to the person, the fairy tales and within them the dark world of the reality we must carry on in.

Indeed, this makes quite clear why we don't have the information we really need from those "boring experiments" and instead are inundated with over hyped glamor publication claims that support their studies on the flimsy evidence from the very few "boring experiments" that have actually been done.

kieran Holt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.