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 hereinGrimm 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.