Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite!


Yesterday morning was not an usual morning for me. Usually, I feel excited to meet the new day and grateful that I can feel that excitement.

Yesterday I felt anxious.

I have never crossed a picket line in my whole working life!

Over the last thirty years I’ve had my revolution(s) and I’ve been on many picket lines. Yesterday I had to cross one because I’d decided to do my classes.

It was a hard decision; it was made entirely because I believe that:

  • Students are not responsible for the downfall of the UK universities; we engineered this one very well ourselves.
  • Many students fit paid work around their studies; rescheduling will cause much inconvenience and disruption in their lives.
  • Many PhD researchers not only have their jobs but they also travel quite a distance; this makes it even harder to accommodate changes to schedule.

Even more importantly, though I’ve become cynical and disillusioned in British Higher Education, I truly believe that our students deserve better; that they deserve not only our competence but also the respect we give our partners in adventure.

Yes, I still see education as a wonderful adventure; every time I stand in front of a class I feel alive with anticipation. Most times I am disappointed: my attempts to light a spark are often met with vacant stares and it is hard to compete with the lure of FaceBook and Twitter.

I still try!

This is why I decided to do my classes, this is why I crossed a picket line.

Do I support the strike? You bet I do!

Yesterday’s strike was simply about pay! I know, this doesn’t sound right, does it? After all, we academics are above material things and, let’s face it, we are still earning rather well.

But here is the deal:

  • Some university employees (mainly porters, cleaners and catering staff) earn below the living wage of £7.75 (£8.80) per hour. I believe this to be the worst form of exploitation and social injustice. In my book, poverty because of unemployment is bad enough but working poverty is a disgrace that belongs to another era.
  • Universities employ people on ‘zero hours’ contracts. This employment arrangement is objectionable when other employers use it: keeping someone on a contract without guarantee of work, income or benefits is a higher form of exploitation. Universities are supposed to be a civilising force, they are supposed to stand against such demeaning practices not use them!
  • You may think that academics earn a decent wage; after all we are custodians of the future both as producing professional elites and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Then again, when you account for the exceptionally long hours we put in, a senior academic can expect to earn slightly over three times the living wage. A junior academic (a ‘Lecturer’) can expect to make roughly what I pay my cleaner, which is £12 per hour.
  • In the past four years, pay in universities has fallen in real terms by about 15%.
  • The gender pay gap persists and female professors still earn on average about 14% less than their male counterparts.
  • Generally the inequality is very high. Suffices to mention that while some university employees earn below living wage, half of the Vice Chancellors of UK universities earn over £242,000 per year.

This is why the strike was about pay; and this is why I think that taking action regarding these issues is right and, possibly, overdue.

It is an entirely different matter whether I believe that walking out is the most effective and efficient way to remedy the situation.

I have doubts! These are mainly related to the following:

  • When we walk out and go on strike, the only disadvantaged group are our students who actually have none of the blame.
  • By walking out we inconvenience our students and irritate their parents who in many cases foot the expenses around their offspring education.
  • Academics on strike is a bit like imagining a crowd of angry and aggressive Buddhists: difficult to comprehend.
  • Last but not least, we should remember that we are dealing with neo-liberal universities. I very much doubt that neo-liberal universities notice whether we go on strike and inconvenience our students – they make sure that they deduct a day’s pay from our salaries.

What neo-liberal universities care about is performance and rankings. So, Knowledge Workers of the World, let’s hit where it really hurts.

Has it occurred to you that we as academics have enormous power in the neo-liberal realities of university life. But not by walking out and putting pickets. We have power by the fact that the fruits of our labour are counted to make the university rankings.

A major component to this is counting publications and, in more refined cases, counting publications in particular journals. Attribution of these articles to particular universities is only by officially recognising the organisation (and making sure that the name is exactly right).

What will happen I wonder, if we academics agree to stop recognising our organisations on our articles?

My guess is that when British universities start sliding off the World rankings, the university leaders and the government will not only listen, they will hear.

Of course, organising this will be rather difficult – it rare that academics agree on much.

What we have to decide though is whether this fight is worth fighting. And I believe it is: for the sake of our support stuff, for the sake of our students and for our own sakes.

Knowledge Workers of the World, Unite!

I have agency; give me back the light switch!

This is what I am talking about!

This is what I am talking about!

It is clear even to the less systematic observer that British universities have been going down the Leninist way and administration and leadership have come to believe that

Control is the highest level of trust!

Symptoms are many and varied; the gradual erosion of trust has been spreading like a cancer to suffocate many opportunities for innovation and make working life in academe rather cumbersome, unpleasant and let’s face it, plainly unpleasant. Some of the control and accountability practices plainly don’t make much sense either.

What I’m talking about? I am talking about the fact that:

  • In many British universities academics constitute less than half of the employees (in the University of Manchester academics, when I last checked, were 48%);
  • Probably because of perceived financial threats, accountants (and equivalent) have far too great influence; have you tried recently to convince the accountant in your research office that a grant from a prestigious research funder is not a loss to the university despite not paying overheads? I tried and my advice would be: don’t even go there; this is easier to explain to a five year old.
  • All financial and purchase decision are being taken at higher and higher levels of the organisation. Only yesterday a colleague informed me that the IT Director of Manchester University (just in case you don’t know this it is a monster of an organisation) will be personally approving all purchases of equipment on the basis of a made business case. Is this really good way to justify his/her salary and to create an entrepreneurial organisation?
  • By the time it’s been through all the Committees and levels of control, changing anything beyond the document font of your course (well, I am exaggerating but only slightly) takes anything up to eighteen months. Starting a new course can take even longer.
  • Academics are evaluated most of the time: we have annual teaching evaluations, research evaluations, starts being attached to our names etc. In fact, evaluating each other’s work is becoming most of what we do; performing for the evaluations is what we have started seeing as our jobs. Forget about learning and these students; let’s get the teaching review right.
  • Academics need to apply for permission for almost anything. Some places stop supplying their academics with laptops because they may decided to work from home. I suppose, a next step would be to chain us to our desks and we need to ask for permission to go to the bathroom (melodramatic, I know, but just imagine).

I’ll probably discuss the costs – including the hidden ones – of this very Leninist erosion of trust some other time. Here, it suffices to mention that this is how universities end up with:

  • Disgruntled academics ignoring and disrespecting their organisations;
  • Academics who become employees and, as we all know, the university business model works only when academics self-exploit;
  • Situations where to process am expense claim can cost much more than the claim itself (I am told that to process a claim in Manchester costs about £75 and people could claim £5);
  • Cases where we spend days writing a business case for the purchase of a computer key-board (well, slightly over-stating the case but you get my drift).

This lack of control stretches even further. Just before the summer, in the building where my office is the light switches were taken away and movement sensors were installed: after all, you can’t trust academics to put the lights off!

Unfortunately, light sensors were not installed; as a result all through the exceptionally bright and light summer months the electricity thirsty lights in the building were on all day longs. Yes, this was completely unnecessary. More importantly, what I presume was meant as a cost saving move ended up costing us so much more in:

  • direct costs since the lights were on much longer than they were when the people in the building had the agency to switch them off; even when we forgot on occasion.
  • indirect costs as in: a) the irritation this meant for us, conscious of the environment and bills people; b) the hours we spent discussing the silliness of this move; c) the time spent by some very helpful administrators trying to sort it out; and d) the growing mistrust and disrespect everyone in this building started feeling towards our organisation.

Here is where I draw a line and say:

I have agency! Give me my light-switch back!

Oh, and I have always disliked Lenin.

Asking for permission or asking for forgiveness: academics and holidays

This is the pool in which I swam every day for a week; with permission and forgiveness :)

This is the pool in which I swam every day for a week; with permission and forgiveness 🙂

For me, the summer holiday is truly over: we came back after three weeks away and although I had to do some personal stuff (mainly related to a lot of administration) I feel rested, renewed and ready for what may come. Conferences, invited workshop papers, seminars – bring it on.

Probably best, is that for the first time for a long while I am looking forward to the new academic year; it is not happening to me, I am looking forward to it with hope and enthusiasm.

What is different?

Well, some may say that it is because I finally got what I wanted: from August 1st I am Professor of Science and Innovation Dynamics and Policy at The University of Manchester. These people would be wrong: yes it feels good to win a marginal organisational battle (this is what getting a professorship without moving and/or at least threatening to leave feels like in British universities) but not great enough to overcome the stresses of the changing organisational routines that happen every September. Yes, our students coming back after the summer upsets seriously the organisational routines of universities.

No. It is the fact that I did manage, for the first time in probably a decade or even longer, not to do any academic/university work during my holidays. Yep, you heard me right: none at all. I am emphasising this because working through weekends, public holidays and breaks has become a matter of boastful complaint – you know the kind where people pretend they are complaining but really they are boasting how hard working they are – amongst British academics. A perception that you can’t get ahead without working thirteen hour days, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year.

Working hard has become a glorified virtue; I agree with the author of Working Smart, Michael LeBoeuf – working hard usually only gets you tired, grumpy and ill. Any success, including success in academia, is about working smart; even more so because working at a university, whether you do research or teaching, is an inherently creative endeavour and creativity favours the rested, calm and focused mind.

But this post is not simply about me finally managing to have a total break (OK, I did check couple of MSc dissertations but this is hardly anything isn’t it); it is about an organisational development that I do find somewhat puzzling. Hence, I decided to share it with my colleagues and readers of this blog so we may find an answer together.

What happened?

Just before going away for the summer, sometime around late July, an e-mail message from one of our administrators landed in my inbox. Nothing unusual so far – many e-mail messages with varying degrees of usefulness end up in my inbox. This message, though, was interesting because it informed me that from now on I’ll have to inform my ‘line manager’ if I am away on holiday.

This immediately, raised three questions: a) who is my ‘line manager’?; and b) how did this come about; and c) why is it necessary?

Who is my line manager?

Forgive me, I may be a remnant of the past but I am not convinced that I have a ‘line manager’. Of course, there are colleagues who have undertaken to run the department for the next couple of years but I do believe that they are the first to reject the notion of them being ‘line managers’.

Being a compliant, neo-liberal employee of the university, I did ask; and it turned out that I – and every other colleague of mine – have to inform our colleagues before we go on holiday.

How did this come about?

Now, don’t misunderstand me; there is a lot to be said about colleagues knowing that you are away – but this used to happen and still happens anyway; it is a simple matter of good behaviour in universities to tell people that you’ll be away. In fact, until very recently, academics covered for each other if one needs to be away taking each other’s teaching, for example. But formally inform the Head of Department?

This is rather strange. Academics are usually not expected to be around the office very much when they are not teaching; or at least, it has always been their choice. It was accepted that academic work – both research and teaching preparation – are largely solitary activities demanding high level of concentration. Academics were trusted to do their job outside the office – as a mathematician friend of mine asked when told to fill in time sheets

‘How do I note the time when I dream mathematics?’

How do I distinguish between being on holiday and working? I will inform my ‘line manager’ that I am resting but what happens if I have an idea and start calling an international team to prepare a proposal? Or a student contacts me with an urgent question?

Apart from that, my contract still says that I have the right to reasonable holiday when I last looked (and this was relatively recently).

I believe that such, and similar, university policies signify two things:

  • There appears to be a general withdrawal of trust that academics, given the chance, will do their jobs properly. Administrators and academic leaders seem to have forgotten that universities thrive on academic self-exploitation  – successful academics generally work much longer hours than their contracts stipulate albeit in non-traditional forms. Many discoveries come in dreams!
  • HR executives who don’t understand the nature of academe and the ways in which human resource matters are different in universities; many of these were recruited from industry in a drive to ‘professionalise’ the universities. They assumed that ‘management’ is really a transferable skill and didn’t bother too much with the finer differences between the way in which academics work and the way in which the other professions employed by the university operate.

Why is it necessary?

Well, it is probably rather obvious I don’t believe that this is necessary. It seems to me that it creates another, and entirely un-necessary layer, of formality and bureaucracy. It is even worse: this kind of useless rule is either ignored or intentionally sabotaged.

Annoying highly intelligent people is always a mistake; universities, going out of their way to annoy their main asset is an error of major proportions!

Do you think I am over-reacting or misunderstanding something?

Peer review is exciting to study! Again.

2013-03-13 15.17.14

Roehampton campus

Sometime ago I received an invitation from the University of Roehampton to give a seminar. As it is usual in such situations we moved very fast from initial pleasantries, to acceptance and to discussing the topic of the seminar. Now, I have four ‘progressive’ research lines and my guess is that I could have offered to give a perfectly acceptable seminar in any of those – they are interdisciplinary enough and at least two of them can potentially affect a number of neighbouring research fields in the area of science and innovation policy and management.

Instead of choosing ‘acceptable’ I said:

“How about talking about peer review as organisational practice?”

 And I almost heard my kind and considerate host’s smile break on the floor. But peer review it was. I made it my mission to convince the audience that studying peer review doesn’t have to be about its distortions (though one of the most cited works on peer review is still the one about sexism and nepotism); it is not about the pain of every researchers who has submitted a paper to a journal and has had it critiqued; and it certainly isn’t about the expenses that peer review systems inevitably incur.

After the seminar: mission accomplished :)

After the seminar: mission accomplished 🙂

But let me tell you why the study of peer review is not only exciting again but also a very topical problem to play with.

I believe that the renewed interest in the study of peer review originates from three inter-related developments:

a)      The overall shift of funding modality away from block grants to research organisations to project based funding to individuals and research teams.  There are two framework modalities for funding research that target different organisational forms, use different selection principles, provide different opportunities and have different effects on the science system: undifferentiated block grants to large organisations and project based support to principal investigators (PIs) and research teams. These funding modalities usually co-exist and the ratio between them is time and place specific. Data suggests that lately a dramatic shift away from block grant funding to organisations towards project based funding for PIs and research teams (Lepori et al. 2007) has occurred.

b)     Diminished ability of universities and research organisations to provide the ‘playground’ for emergence and development of novel, high risk ideas.  Block funding to organisations, for instance, provides the ‘low entry’ idea generation facility science needs and the stability to grow and test these ideas so that selection could be carried out at a later stage when clear promise can be discerned. These opportunities are well illustrated by two recent cases where a stable organisational environment was reported to have provided the conditions for scientific breakthrough research that was recognised by the highest accolade – the Nobel Prize[1]. One of the effects of the reduction of block grants is that organisations no longer have the resources to ‘grow’ novel and risky ideas.

c)      The stated intention of some research funding agencies to support (and select) path-breaking research. Research funders have already signalled their intention to identify and support risky, path breaking research. Many existing research councils have incorporated the support of ‘path-breaking’ research amongst their missions. Furthermore, we have witnessed the establishment of the first organisation to support investigator driven risky research at European level – the European Research Council (Nedeva et al., 2012; Nedeva & Stampfer, 2012).

Here is the big question:

“Is it possible to use peer review to identify and select path-breaking potential research proposals and, if it is, under what conditions?”

What makes this questions so exciting? Couple of things.

First, it is about using peer review as organisational practice for selection. This is obviously important practically – in the current funding regime(s) what funding agencies select and support today is THE SCIENCE of the future. It is also exciting methodologically because answering this question requires one to link ‘causally’ selection practices and the long term effects of this selection (whether or not the research has come to be considered to be path-breaking).

Second, in light of the question posed one ought to un-pack the nature (and differences) of ‘excellent’ and ‘path-breaking’ research and account for the following: a) ‘excellence’ and ‘path-breaking’ are not properties but attributes of research; b) ‘excellence’ is about consensual judgement whilst ‘path-breaking’ is about selecting outliers; c) ‘excellence’ is constructed through the ‘norm’ and ‘path-breaking’ through exceptionality; and d) ‘excellence’ is about mastery and ‘path-breaking’ about novelty and risk.

In other words, ‘excellence’ and ‘path-breaking’ are not nested notions or sides of a continuum, but they describe different axis of knowledge. Hence, it is possible to have research that is:

  • Excellent but not path-breaking
  • Excellent and path-breaking
  • Not excellent but path-breaking
  • Neither

Peer review as practices at the moment could select excellent research and it could possibly cope with excellent research that may be path-breaking. But it has problems dealing with research that is potentially path-breaking but not yet excellent.

This is why I believe that studying peer review is exciting again.

[1] In 2009 three scientists shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry – Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath – for ‘studies in the structure and function of the ribosome’. In their interviews (, last accessed 4 May 2011) they all mentioned that when they started their research ‘nature was not ready to unveil its secrets’, What allowed them the opportunity to continue was, in the words of Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, ‘the stable and supportive funding environment’ that their organisations provided. Similarly, in 2010 two scientists from the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for ‘ground breaking experiments regarding the two dimensional material graphene’. Two conditions enabled this discovery: the ‘play- time’ the members of the laboratory shared every Friday afternoon and a roll of sticky tape (from interview with K. Novoselov). It is also worth noting that since theory predicted that graphene is impossible work on it could have not passed peer review and is highly unlikely to have been funded by any research funding agency.


Funding science in Chile

christmas 015

If five months ago you asked me to name the three things that I knew Chile by I would have said: military coup and camps, Isabel Allende and wine. In this order!

Visiting a winery

Visiting a winery

Then, at the end of 2012 I was invited to take part in the evaluation of the research funding programmes of CONICYT: the closest thing Chile has to a research council and without doubt one of the main public funders of research in the country. To my delight there was also a ‘cite visit’ which meant that I finally visited Chile – a dream harboured for many years.

This visit allowed me to expand my knowledge about Chile beyond the three facts mentioned above to include annual economic growth of over 5% (which in Europe is currently a level beyond our wildest aspirations), predominantly primary economy (nice lapis lazuli, silver, copper and other rare minerals), visible inequality, leading edge astronomy, well know mathematics, wonderful, warm people, safe streets and amazing writing (after all Chile has two Nobel Prizes for literature).

Pablo Neruda's house

Pablo Neruda’s house

More to the point, Chile is one of the few countries in the world that has been consistently increasing the public funding for research and is looking to increase it even further. It is interesting to note, for instance, that the funding of FONDECYT (National Fund for Scientific and Technological Research), the main programme for supporting the science base in Chile, has increased over twofold between 2007 and 2012 (from $71 million to over $160 million).

This is in a considered national effort to move away from its economy based on primary industry to being a knowledge based society with thriving innovation and creativity. Considerable proportion of FONDECYT is invested in developing the new generations of Chilean researchers; many young researchers are funded to continue their education abroad (at Masters and PhD) level.

Further, FONDECYT is only one, albeit the largest, of the programmes of CONICYT; the council also supports FONDEF (Fund for the Promotion of Scientific and technological Development); FONDAP (Fund for Research Centres of Excellence in Priority Areas); and PIA (Associative Research Programme).

If you are interested in more detail about the operating principles and pitfalls of these programmes you may read the evaluation report by following this link. I will only mention a number of things I noticed (in no order of importance):

  • As in many ‘catching up’ countries, education in Chile is seen as a means for social mobility and has become a ‘premium good’. Simply put, this means that education at all levels is very expensive; which exacerbates the social inequality visible in the country.
  • Chile is training many young scientists and academics at the moment; most of them are abroad. It is always possible that the research infrastructure developed within the country lags behind the capacity embodied in people. This means that it is a possibility that five years from now Chile has a large number of highly qualified, under-employed scientists. Which as investments go is probably not a very good one!
  • I am always bowed over and intrigued by Catholic education; some of the top universities (and colleges) around the world are Catholic. Until I went to Chile, I didn’t recognise that this means they are directly supported by the Vatican and that the chief officers of the university are appointed by the Pope.

I’ll leave you now with this example of mathematicians’ humour; this picture was taken at the department of mathematics.

Most people misunderstand this equation

Most people misunderstand this equation

Oh, and when you read the report, please ignore the pictures – many who will read this know that I am better and less serious looking.

Entrepreneurship is no rocket science!

After the key-note!

After the key-note!

Recently my colleague Kate Barker and I visited the Sultanate of Oman: an Arab state on the Arabian Peninsula the economy of which strongly, if not exclusively depends on oil. Sunshine, great mostly middle-eastern cuisine and impressive souks aside, we were to take part in a high level policy workshop on ‘Entrepreneurial Higher Education for Sustainable Development’.

More specifically, our tasks were to review a policy report on developing entrepreneurial universities in Oman (sponsored by The Research Council of Oman), to present at the workshop and generally enable a discussion on these issues. Our key note was one of several and many interesting messages – about the situation in the Asian countries in general and in Oman in particular – emerged. A key message was delivered by Ms. Sharifa Al Harthy, a PhD researcher supervised by Kate and me.

Oil is finished – it will either literally run out or it will end like the stone age; the stone age ended not because we run out of stone!

Sharifa Al Harthy

Sharifa Al Harthy

Under this circumstances, developing entrepreneurial environments and encouraging creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship seems to be an obvious path for development.

Where is the problem?

Well, it seems to me that there are at least three problems.

  • The first of these lies in the complex and difficult to manage, govern and predict nature of entrepreneurship and creativity. By their very nature, these are highly unpredictable, risky and uncertain events.
  • Second, and related to the previous issue, there is a problem of selection and efficiency. Most current policy making is about achieving high efficiency which is ensured through selection, evaluation and accountability and financial control. Because of the highly uncertain and unpredictable nature of entrepreneurship and creativity early selection is problematic, evaluation is likely to be in-effective and strict financial control can stifle rather than encourage developments.
  • Last but not least, the issue of enabling entrepreneurship and creativity in Oman (and many other countries around the world) is not one of analysis (which academics have made into a research field and career choice) but one of transformation (for which consultants have not the tools).

This made me consider what will happen were we to forget about the 700,000 or so hits on Google Scholar when searching for ‘entrepreneurship’ and try some old fashioned thinking from ‘first principles’. And this is what I came up with.

Entrepreneurship can be defines as

The ability to see opportunities and act on these.

Working from this ‘definition’ it is possible to distinguish between two part to entrepreneurship:

  • Being entrepreneurial as a personal attribute; and
  • Creating the organisational and institutional conditions for ‘entrepreneurship’ as personal characteristic to be enacted.

There are many aspect in which the two are linked; but the important thing to remember is that policy can’t do much about the personal apart from creating the different conditions for it to blossom.

These conditions are likely to be different depending on context – national, organisational, cultural and personal. Working from the first two issues with entrepreneurship mentioned above I would venture that the two key characteristics of entrepreneurial environments are:

  • Variety; and
  • Flexibility.

Variety refers to organisations, knowledge, funding sources and other kinds of opportunity. Combined with flexibility of governance, structure and management,  this is likely to have the following effects:

  1. Provide the environment for organic selection of ideas thus dealing away with the need for early selection (which in the case of entrepreneurship and creativity is problematic);
  2. Send a message that entrepreneurship is actively encouraged and creativity sought.
  3. Provide the ‘play-ground’ for risk taking – an essential ingredient of both entrepreneurial cultures and entrepreneurial spirit.
  4. Help raise entrepreneurs.

For entrepreneurship to blossom, however, variety and flexibility ought to pervade all areas and aspects of society. There is little point, for instance, to aspire to develop entrepreneurial university in a social, political and funding environments lacking variety of opportunities and flexibility of structures. Similarly, a university cannot be entrepreneurial – neither can be its lecturers and students – if it is riddled with hierarchical and centralised governance structure, inflexible rules, promotion structures that take close to a year, accounting arrangements where processing a claim for £5 costs the organisation £75, and where student assignments are rigidly specified and approved.

At the level of the individual things are also not that difficult: just open your mind so you can learn and spot opportunities, and be flexible enough to be able to ‘take it as it comes’. Oh, and do, don’t only think!

Do you see now why I believe entrepreneurship is no rocket science? Because to enable it one needs only two things at many levels: variety and flexibility.

What do you think?

How do policy makers learn?

A discussion session during the SADC executive course

A discussion session during the SADC executive course

I know, I know. This kind of question can yield ‘clever’ answers like ‘they don’t’. But before any of you comes up with an answer like that, stop and think for a bit; and…did you catch onto the fact that most of social science is about understanding, hence it is ultimately about increasing control. Being so, all social science is – directly or indirectly – linked to policy and policy making.

Having figured this one out, and inhabiting a research field that is closely related to policy, I would suggest that we take the question about how policy makers learn seriously. There are three reasons for this that I can think of: 1) most funding for social sciences is very likely to come from users (policy and management) in the future; this may be for research or executive courses; 2) enlightened policy makers are much easier to work with and they contribute much more value to our societies; and 3) enlightened policy makers don’t just happen; they develop through learning.

For many years now, I have worked closely with policy makers in both research and executive education. Yep, I love theory and I strive to develop it where possible – this is where my heart is. My (understands my employer’s) bread and butter, however, is often in research that is funded by policy makers and intended to contribute value to their work (or be useful). Through about twenty years of doing research for policy, I have had only one clear-cut moment of glory (understand ‘the lightheaded feeling that I have really contributed value and enabled social change’) – when in mid-1990s Prof Luke Georghiou and I did a survey of research equipment: one of the outcomes – a calculation of how much investment the UK government need to make in research equipment and facilities were we to keep at the forefront of science –  resulted in considerable increase of the science budget shared between the Wellcome Trust and the government.

These and similar reflections made me ask myself the question

How do policy makers learn?

And it seems to me that, just like most people, policy makers learn in four principal ways, namely:

  • From other people (this is when we lecture, deliver a talk, or simply explain, advise and instruct others);
  • Through other people (this is when we watch what others are doing and learn how to match situations and behaviour);
  • From book and other artefacts; and
  • From their experience.

Here lies the problem! Looking at these four point, it is not difficult to see that at least three of them are somewhat problematic. Policy makers come from variety of educational backgrounds and they are not necessarily well versed in the domains of their remit. In other words, at least initially, policy people dealing with science don’t necessarily understand its detailed workings. Obvious vehicles for learning would be attending an executive course, commissioning expert opinion (consultancy) and/or reading some of the literature on the topic.


  • executive courses are usually short and lecture based (research shows that generally people forget about 85% of a lecture before they leave the lecture theatre);
  • consultancy is generally seen as a ‘regular economic transaction’ – knowledge product is exchanged for an amount of money; this doesn’t provide a platform for continuous, working interactions and co-production which can enable ‘learning from others’; and
  • most specialised academic writing is difficult to comprehend.

This, while possibly the case, is not very useful if we aim to come up with provisions that enable learning. Hence, I decided to re-frame the question as:

Why do policy makers fail to learn?

And there may be a number of reasons (factors) preventing learning but there seems to be a pattern emerging around the following:

  1. Lack of trust – the people from and through whom learning can occur are not sufficiently trusted.
  2. Lack of interest – often attending an executive course may not be the idea of the person attending; furthermore in many cases it is not straight forward to link the content of an executive course and the everyday tasks people perform.
  3. Lack of relevance – it is not immediately obvious how the content of the course informs policy making. Often this is an expected outcome of the disconnect between academics and policy makers.
  4. Lack engagement – there are no provisions for engagement or these are not taken up.
  5. Lack of time – these people are usually very busy and they cannot devote the time necessary to gain some, albeit limited, mastery of their ‘object’.

Instead of doing a ‘conceptual piece’ on how these can be ‘corrected’ I’ll tell you briefly about a different kind of executive course that the MIoIR is running in Africa.

Science, Technology and Policy Course for the SADC Countries

This course aims to develop policy making capacity in the SADC countries acting on the initiative by the Ministers of Science and Technology in the region who asked South Africa to lead developments. UNESCO is supporting it by providing funding and actively following progress.

Prof Alaphia Wright

Prof Alaphia Wright

This STP course is targeted at high and mid-level policy makers; they were nominated and their ministries (organisations) undertook to ensure participation and enable conditions for engaged learning (more about this one later). The course is led by Profs Edler and Laredo and involves five senior academics from MIoIR (Flanagan, Uyarra, Rip and Nedeva) and colleagues from the University of Zimbabwe.

Prof Laredo after a mentoring session :)

Prof Laredo after a mentoring session 🙂

You can read more about the course here. Now let me move on to how is this course different.

  • This executive course takes place over nine months (September 2012 to July 2013) not couple of days.
  • There are three ‘contact’ weeks taking place in South Africa. these are spaced through the length of the course and in between mentors (academics) are in regular and intensive virtual contact with their mentees.
  • This course (the ‘contact’ weeks) is residential which means that there are ample opportunities for socialising
  • Lecturing takes part mainly during the first of the three weeks and sessions cover key issues in policy. Concerted effort was made to ensure that the sessions are interactive, engaging and the links between the material covered and policy were made apparent.
  • Discussion is encouraged during and after the sessions. For instance, the second week of the course consisted mainly of face-to-face discussions between mentors and mentees.
  • Participants were supported in identifying and researching topics that are pertinent to their jobs. They will present their ideas during the third ‘contact’ week of the course.
Prof Edler during a mentoring discussion

Prof Edler during a mentoring discussion

Now let me, in light of the points set out above, get back to the reasons why policy makers fail to learn.

  1. Lack of trust – this course offers the framework conditions for building trust through the length, outside the course interactions and mentoring structures. Also, the involvement of the University of Zimbabwe brings to the table local knowledge so that the argument ‘it doesn’t work like this where I am from’ is difficult to sustain.
  2. Lack of interest – this is dealt with in three ways: by explicitly linking the content and everyday policy concerns; by engaging participants in discussions and by asking them to  research a topic that is key to their work activities.
  3. Lack of relevance – as above.
  4. Lack of engagement – this is remedied by allowing ample time for discussion and by setting up a project that has clear milestones and end result.
  5. Lack of time – this is still hard but…the fact that participants will present their work during the last ‘contact’ week of the course focused the mind.

I would be very interested to hear what do you think about policy people learning but it seems to me that accounting for the reasons why they don’t learn when designing learning platforms may be a productive way to follow.

About hoods and unorthodox teaching approaches

2013-02-17 14.30.02

No, you have not started seeing things; it is me – Dr. Maria Nedeva, Manchester and Lund Universities academic – wearing a hoodie with the hood up. And no, we have not moved to the estates, I am not getting ready for participant observation (who would believe a fifty year old, white, middle class woman in a hoodie anyway) and I am most certainly not getting ready to join the church. Having started in a good academic style by telling what this is not about, let me now tell you what it is.

After six years in university management (building successful Doctoral schools and being the Associate Dean for post-graduate research of a very large faculty), a year of rapping up and research, and a year of sabbatical I am finally teaching a full load. This means that I teach a philosophy of science course to PhD researchers, a course on innovation and creativity to undergraduates and a methodology course to Masters students. This story is about the last course and the one where we, academics, are most exposed at present; but I am digressing a bit.

My colleague Kate Barker and I have been taking turns teaching methods and methodology to Masters (and PhD) students for almost couple of decades now. We have almost perfected the art of bouncing the course from one to the other with minimal disruption and optimal efficiency. Or this is what I thought! My optimism, having nothing to do with content and all to do with disruption and efficiency, didn’t take into account administration where things can go really wrong if routines are broken an tasks deviate from the ‘ordinary’ even by the smallest degree.

So when this year it was my turn to teach methodology to Masters students and I had to move the course from Mondays to Fridays (I am not bragging about being busy, I know this is making me look bad; but there are still many conflicting demands on academics’ time and we do self-exploit) the system broke down. While, blissfully unaware, I was delivering my last lecture in Lund, my students – equally unaware – were expecting me to be in a lecture theatre in Manchester. Getting more and more annoyed – after all, they are the customer and they have been messed about again!

To cut a long story short, four days later, (very) early in the morning I had to stand in front of about sixty really cross Masters students and deliver the first lecture of the Methods and Methodology course. This is not a mean feat even when facing a crowd that still trusts you; but…

So, when my eyes moved around the lecture theatre and I spotted a guy wearing a hoodie with his hood up, I wasn’t really surprised: after all people have to make their feeling known somehow. If I were in a lecture with my hood up what I’ll be saying will consist of good, punchy Anglo-Saxon words, none of them longer than four letters and these are better not repeated on this blog. What I’ll be feeling and conveying will be disrespect!

If I told you that I just got on with it and mumbled my lecture you are not going to believe me. Instead, I looked the student squarely in the eye and said:

“Would you mind taking your hood off, please.”

“Is this a requirement of the course? ”Cause if it isn’t, I am not doing it!” – defiance in his voice.

“No it isn’t a requirement of the course; it is a much more basic requirement of proper behaviour.”

Nothing happened; the hood stayed up!

I did a decent job of the lecture; I suppose, being so tired and vexed made me forget that I have to be good and I just was. Usually, my lectures rate high for entertainment value – deep down, I am just a frustrated actress and a stand up comedienne.

I could have left it at that and just gone on with my life. But I kept thinking about it and about what this young people learned from it. Here is what I came up with:

  • They learned that they are the customer;
  • The customer can misbehave because he/she has the power in the relationship;
  • Lecturers can’t do much; they can ‘suck it up’ and carry on;
  • Lecturers don’t care.

Next thing I knew is that I was thinking: ‘This is wrong! I have a room full of young, bright people full of promise – and paying a rather large fee – who will be left with the deception regarding their status, their rights and obligations and my place in all that. In other words, they will be left confused about why they are paying their student fee (apart from education being a privilege in the UK, this is).’

I decided that for the next lecture I’ll wear a hoodie and will teach with my hood on; not in revenge but as a fairly unorthodox pedagogical method – remind them about the categorical imperative of Kant and the Golden Rule of the Bible.

I needed a hoodie; for this one I decided that I may as well buy myself a Manchester University one. After all, I have a number of Georgia Tech tops (don’t ask) and wear them often when travelling – and Georgia Tech is not paying my salary but Manchester University still is. On my way to the shop, I stopped at the undergraduate office; when they heard about my plan the administrators were so excited to hear how it went that I got a free hoodie (this is what I am wearing on the picture, thank you Linda).

So, for my last lecture I appeared in my brand new, warm and cuddly hoodie. Looked around and…the student was wearing a nice top, looking straight at me and ready for whatever I threw his way; in a way of knowledge and skills this is :). So I just smiled and:

1)      Told the class that their belief that they are paying such large fees so that we make them entrepreneurs is misguided. They are paying this fee because we open gates (help them see opportunities) where they only saw walls. Part of this is that we are here to broaden their thinking and expand their minds. You think this sounded slushy? Well, maybe but it gave me an outlet into Kant.

2)      Told them that being successful and being an entrepreneur is a personal choice, a bit like being moral: I can teach them ethics but I can’t give them morality.

3)      Than explained that wearing hoodies is not my usual style; but that I was going to lecture with the hood on if their colleague was wearing his. They laughed and their trust in me increased. As to the ‘Hoodie Student’ we agreed that for next lecture we’ll both wear our hoodies – and have research methodology ‘hip-hop’ style.

All is well when it ends well! But this makes me think about:

  • How by casting our students as ‘the customer’ we are in effect short-changing them; and
  • How easy it is for academic colleagues just to ‘give up’. How easy it is to forget that teaching is not ‘just a job’ but it is a calling and our highest duty.

About assessing academic performance and the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Couple of weeks ago, I received a message informing me that the outcome of the latest round preparing the University of Manchester for the up-coming Research Excellence Framework (REF) is on line and I can view my results on a specific, dedicated part of the IT system. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this part of the IT system is called REF Preparation Exercise.

Looking at my scores, made me consider again the way in which academic research and research outputs are assessed. Since in doing this credibility is important, let me assure you that I don’t see myself as being a victim of the system and I am doing rather well with it. Any criticism voiced here is because I’d like to see it working better rather than a ‘sour grapes’ kind of complaint.

But let me set out the scene for my readers outside the UK. British universities are in midst of preparing for the REF that will take place in 2014 and will assess ‘research that has taken place’ between 2008 and 2013. In fairness and honesty, British universities have been continuously preparing for one or other round of this exercise ever since its inception in the mid-1980s. The REF is the latest manifestation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) that started in 1986 and through it a set of changes in the relationships between government (the state) and science were initiated. This exercise was to run every five years and assess the research performance of university units through a panel based peer review system; the Panels assign units a certain number of ‘stars’ (currently between 1 and 4). Base line funding for research depends on this assessment and so it is perceived as important by the universities to ‘do well’. In effect, this exercise is as much about reputation as it is about funding. For more on this you can see this article.

Universities have learned to play different games in light of these exercises; from going to great length to get their staff represented on the different panels to ensuring that members of faculty publish regularly in the ‘right’ journals and their publications are of the ‘right’ quality. The University of Manchester is no exception.

We, for instance, have an annual REF preparation exercise where members of staff select a number of their papers (all pre-entered in eScholar – a web based system used to keep a record of our publications); these are read by senior members of staff (Senior Lecturers and Professors) and assigned number of stars corresponding to these assigned by the REF panels (this mind, was done even when we were not entirely clear about the rules and criteria of assessment). There have been plenty of criticisms levelled on the practice mainly relating to the possibility that peer review works at the level of organisations and organisational units, the substantial costs involved and the vague criteria such assessments by necessity employ. Apart from the criticisms directed to nature of assessment there have been concerns regarding the use of the outcome from the preparation exercise (in promotions, for instance) and the Union has called for boycotting participation. Here, I don’t intend to discuss any of these.

What I would like to do is to share my observations regarding some features of the scores of my articles and share what I believe to be the fundamental problem in this kind of assessment system, namely a system focusing on the assessment of published output.

My observations are two:

  1. Any paper published in the top journal of the broad field (Research Policy) received 4*. This is probably one more example that reputation matters.
  2. Output published in other outlets (not top ranking broad domain journals) received lower rankings and it is likely that they were read more carefully. In this case, since knowledge of the narrow field is essential, the timeline of the publication obviously mattered – earlier publications that already have citations were ranked much higher. Epistemic difference also likely played a large role – the bigger the epistemic difference between the narrow research interests and approach of the assessor and the assessed the lower the ranking. I suppose, additional considerations came to play.

This, irrespective of any other concerns, led to couple of anomalies. These are that:

  1. A chapter in a book edited by Polish colleagues was rated 1* (this is the lowest score). This article, although probably not one of my best, was a key to opening a new and progressive personal (and possibly collective) research line. It was solicited by the editors of the book and set out for the first time the notion of science as a relationship between research spaces and research fields. This notion informed writing the proposal for EURECIA, a research project that got funded by the European Research Council (ERC) at slightly less than 500K euro; it provided the intellectual foundation for a later Research Policy paper; and is already being used by other colleagues.
  2. A co-authored article of mine (I am the lead author) in Science was rated 2* (and 1* by the external to the unit assessor). I do believe that anything published by Science warrants higher score than that. This particular article was unique in that it managed to put forward a coherent social science argument (that European level policy is moving from ‘Science in Europe’ to ‘European Science’ mode) in about 3,000 words. The article was reviewed by four peers and went through two rounds of review. Apart from that, it is clearly a part of the budding research line mentioned above.

What is the problem?

I believe that distortions in the ratings originate in the fact that what is being assessed are discrete outputs (published articles, chapters and others); these are assessed as independent events rather than as part of the continuous research lines that we as researchers build and the way in which these research lines intersect with the development of the research field (or fields). Concentrating the assessment on discrete outputs has different problematic implications but here I’d like to mention the following:

  • It can lead to inaccuracies that are far too important in terms of individual’s careers to be allowed;
  • It works against starting new individual research lines and taking risk in research.
  • This in turn reduces epistemic variety in research fields and works against the possibility for intellectual innovation.

Last lecture in Lund

Me delivering the lecture

Me delivering the lecture

For slightly over two years now I’ve been International Fellow at the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Lund; this position is hosted by Prof. Merle Jacob at the Research Policy Institute (RPI). I would mention some of the opportunities that this position has afforded, but the only formal duty associated with it is that once a year I (and my fellows on the programme) had to come to Lund, give a lecture on what has been done and have dinner with the sponsor and members of staff.

This event – the public lectures – took place last night. Topics and quality were varied but overall it wasn’t a bad night. I am taking away the message from research on ‘work-life balance’ – integration is not necessarily a great thing. Apparently, high managers in South Korea have integrated approach to the work-life balance which simply put means that ‘work has become their life’ – these people have dinner with their families ten times a year. Can you imagine living like that? My contribution to this debate would be: one should distinguish between their ‘job’ and work; and be very strict about distinguishing between job and life. Work is a different matter and this can spill over.

What did I do?

Well, I started with a reminder of how I saw the key issues in my research field three years ago (I haven’t changed my mind; since then I have just refined my understanding of these issues and the possible ways to approach them).

The main issue (as I perceived it) was, and still is, out limited understanding of how governance (policy measures and funding instruments) affects science; in a language more aligned to this of policy, this is the overarching issue of impact in all its manifestations. Within this, four issues attract my attention, and concentrate my effort and energy, namely that

  • Analysis, to the extent to which this exists, is fragmented. This means that neighbouring research fields have made great advances in understanding specific subdomains but there is little understanding of the ‘causal’ mechanisms linking change of different aspects of science and specific policy measures.
  • Problems with attribution. Identifying and measuring the effects of policy is a daring task; attributing this change to specific policy action is a challenge of epic proportions.
  • Lack of frameworks for analytical comparison. Methodologically, the research fields of Science and Innovation Policy Studies (SIPS), STS and Higher Education Research (HER) are in a purgatory between the macro and the micro (individual cases) when what can afford the opportunity to link governance and change is the meso-level; this gap can be overcome by developing a number of frameworks for analytical comparison.

After that, I expanded on the ways in which with support from and in collaboration with, colleagues from universities and research centres in many European countries I have been advancing knowledge and shaping the research agenda around these clusters of issues. Only looking at the last two years I would say that the time of the Fellowship has been productive. A fascination grew out to become a progressive research line combining publications, attracting resources, training PhD students, enlarging my research network, deepening my collaboration with colleagues at the University of Lund and starting a, for the time being small, research group at MIoIR.

What I can say, is that my time as Fellow of Lund University has been very productive so far. Only the colleagues at the RPI – my host department – can say whether I have contributed anything to their research agenda and the life of the unit.

What makes me jump with joy, though, is not the output that I have managed to generate during these last couple of years and that is likely to continue. What this fellowship did for me was to afford me a bit of time and to bring the excitement of what I do back into my life. And, of course, it also allowed me not simply to generate output but to hope that one day this will have considerable impact.