Raising the risk threshold
29 April 2014 14 Comments
When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up, do you retreat to your cave?
Do you have a bit of a tantrum and declare ‘What’s the POINT?’ to innocent passers-by?
I’ve done my fair share of this, and it’s all perfectly normal and healthy for a time. But you have to eventually leave the cave and stop yelling at passersby.
I was talking to a colleague about academic resilience recently – the ability to ‘bounce back’ after papers are heavily criticised or rejected, grants not awarded, or promotions not given.
I’ve seen people respond so differently to these events, though they all start with the same fallen expression.
Some take the entire process as an indictment on their work and position within the field, swear off wasting their time with it all, and disengage.
Others revisit the critique and feedback, and start reworking their submission for the very next round.
Still others revisit the critique, acknowledge that the comments about track-record or scope of project (or whatever) have truth to them, and they take a step back to work up those aspects before investing more time in the application and submission (and waiting…) process.
These responses align with a particular researcher’s level of professional resilience and their ability to absorb setbacks. Someone who is a tenured professor, for example, has more opportunity to choose their response. Those in the research precariat or on fixed-term contracts, however, may not have the luxury of resubmission or reworking; there may be no support to do these things at all.
The way that researchers respond to rejections and unsuccessful applications may also indicate the level of support and encouragement that surrounds them. If research setbacks are read as ‘fails’, then that speaks volumes about the research climate. If research development support is only offered to full-time continuing staff, then everyone else is exiled to the lonely, chafing land of ‘yes, we want you to be successful but not if it means using our resources’.
Think about this: if all you ever see are people applying for grants, finding out the results, then giving up if they didn’t get one, what would you think the grant application cycle consisted of?
Alternatively, what happens if all you ever see are people applying for grants, finding out the results, then working over unsuccessful ones, re-applying to that and other schemes…? And what if all this was undertaken as a collegial, collaborative effort that did not make pariahs of ‘unsuccessfuls’? Are we entering unicorn territory yet?
Every time you submit a grant application, you take a risk. But, these days, you take a risk if you don’t submit one.
Now, more than ever, universities would benefit from creating environments that support and encourage researchers to take risks, and seeing these risks as part of a healthy academic life.
Academic cultures have an embedded reputation for being risk-averse and rather staid. Despite decades of rhetorical flourish, ‘universities’ and ‘innovation’ are not concepts that live practically side by side. Indeed, innovation has become such a hackneyed term that we gave it another name: ‘discovery’ (thanks, @deborahbrian!).
Can academic cultures foster risk-taking?
Lily Kim at FluidicMEMS puts it nicely this way:
People love sexy, unsolved questions, but they usually care only if you find the right answer. If you spend five years proving a molecule doesn’t cure cancer, who cares? All the more embarrassing if you spent a few million dollars along the way. (Risk is scary, even in academic research)
Innovation – or discovery – requires taking a risk.
What’s a sad fact, however, is that few organisations or funding bodies are willing to let researchers take the gamble. They both require and reward steady productivity - the kind of academic background that always has an upward trajectory. Whether to fund or employ someone depends on whether the organisation thinks that person is a ‘good bet’ for producing desired outcomes. Even when outcomes might be negative and useful, it’s a tough sell. While it’s not impossible to find major funding bodies that support this kind of research (e.g. the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA has awarded contracts for Fast-Fail Trials), they’re rare.
Research projects can become mired in risk mitigation and ‘feasibility’. I’m not talking here about ethics issues or experimenting with Very Bad Diseases. So much of the craft of applying for research grants focuses on presenting a seamless narrative about the ‘do-ability’ of the project and the team’s proven track-record (definitely no risk-taking there!). I found myself giving this advice all the time – never lie, but you need to present all this in the best possible light.
Would you ever give an honest take in a grant application on whether a blue-sky project will succeed? Could a justification about how much was learned from a negative project conclusion hold water with funding bodies the next time you submit an application?
Researchers have stated that funding applications are a waste of time (or take up too much time, in any case), so submitting anything other than work that promises transformative, positive results is a risk few, if any, would take.
Even the most apparently innovative types of research that get funded under existing schemes could be viewed as relatively risk-free and ‘good bets’ for the funding organisations. The funding of safe choices begets funding for safe choices, no?
Can a system that’s run by those who’ve benefited so well from it move beyond this? Moreover, does it really want to?