Taking Research for Granted

British universities need to become more like America’s if they want to keep the best scientists

When I worked as a professor of mathematics in Chicago, my research was supported every year by summer grants from the federal government. This kept me on my toes. These grants supply additional salary and normally require fresh ideas every two or three years. Money coming from outside academia can have a wonderful effect on academics, who often feel undervalued by their own university. No need to engage in political skulduggery or sycophantic posturing to get a higher salary – just convince your scientific peers in other universities that you’re really worth that extra money.

Of course, the federal government has to foot the bill, but it wants to support the universities anyway and this method funnels money through those working at the cutting edge. Their extra salary and travel expenses normally form only a smallish fraction of the total grants as the universities soak up large overhead costs. This makes them keen to employ staff who can obtain grants – those whose work attracts good peer reviews. No need for each university to make its own careful soundings from external assessors. It’s all done automatically and is perennially updated. Moreover, the government’s generous support creates a stimulating environment that attracts foreigners to work in the US. In my department at one time, over half the research faculty were from abroad.

It wasn’t always this way. After the First World War, Germany was the place for mathematics. But the Nazis put paid to that and many of the brightest minds moved across the Atlantic. Of course, the Nazis were very stupid, but don’t be too smug. Government interference and bureaucracy in the UK are forcing some British academics to seek new pastures. We should be providing an environment to release their creative energies rather than stifle them.

If you wanted to destroy American success in academia, how would you go about it? First, you’d cut the research grants that provide extra salary. Then you’d abolish the use of teaching assistants and make the faculty members do all the work at the coalface. Instead of just lecturing, setting final exams and controlling what the assistants are doing, they would run the “help sessions” with smaller groups of students, set weekly class tests and interact with external examiners/assessors to prove that what they’re doing is right. Crazy? Of course, but it happens in Britain.

In Britain, research grants do not pay top-up salaries. People apply for rather small amounts of money. You can put in a proposal for £1,700 and it will go out to three or four referees. You spend time writing the proposal, they spend time reading it and filling in forms to comment on it, and the grant- giving body, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), for instance, spends time administering it. And all for £1,700. Not only does the EPSRC spend money administering small amounts of money, it produces a regular glossy brochure extolling its work and talking about research projects in other areas of science. In all my years in America, I have never received a glossy brochure from the National Science Foundation or the National Security Agency, though I received hundreds of thousands of dollars from both these bodies, in sums of at least $50,000 each.

Ah yes, some people will say, but it’s different in Britain. Academics are paid for 12 months of the year, whereas in America they are officially paid for nine months, and can do what they like with the other three – work on a research grant, go backpacking, fly kites or just sit by the pool. Fine, but this is a convenient fiction in the sense that the salary is paid in 12 equal instalments and if you have a research grant you work on it all year round. No one cares if you fly a balloon from one coast to the other in the summer, as long as you get the research done. And while British academics have 12-month contracts, so do most people, but many get bonuses. Why can’t we pay bonuses to academics, like the extra salary on research grants in America? No need to match the levels that investment bankers have hitherto received. I’m talking about £10,000 or so to a world expert who is pushing forward the boundaries of some specialised field. Their salary is probably less than £100,000 and may be below £50,000, so £10,000 is worth the serious work of reassessing one’s research every two or three years and writing a proposal to convince others of its value.

If we funded universities through their ablest researchers, then we wouldn’t need to spend such enormous efforts in assessing the research of all the different departments in all of Britain’s universities. In short, we’d be far more efficient and that in turn would release senior academics to spend more of their time doing research. Admittedly, some senior academics don’t do much research any more and like to serve on committees. But that’s fine. Let them help administer their own universities, rather than leaving it up to administrators with little or no experience of what it’s like to combine full-time teaching with a full research programme.

It’s all too easy for university administrators to impose extra burdens on their academic staff. When I was a professor at Birmingham there were seven levels an exam had to pass through before it could be given to the students. Yes, I’m all in favour of checking exams, and in mathematics whoever sets the exam must provide fully reasoned answers – questions that look straightforward may show unanticipated glitches when you work through them as if you were a student. But too much time is spent calling in people from outside the university. I don’t dispute the need for external assessors when giving the final degree, particularly in subjects where political or cultural prejudices may come into play. But there is a tendency in Britain today for everyone to be looking over everyone else’s shoulder. It wastes time, resources and energy. And now some administrators want us to keep tabs on class attendance and report significant absences to the Home Office.

The more time research and teaching staff spend on administration, the less time there is for good teaching and good research. Already, a significant proportion of pupils from the country’s top schools are going to study in America. We won’t keep them here or attract good foreigners by elaborate examination protocols or by pursuing non-attendance in class, but by broadening the scope of the education we offer and providing a stimulating environment for learning and research. And, of course, by having world-beating research at our universities.

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