Is growing your own researchers a luxury?

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

catapult (Artwork/image by Tony Dowler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonydowler)

Is a university that provides internal funds to its researchers being indulgent?

After my post about the dangers of internal funding was published, Stephen Matchett picked up on part of it in this issue of Campus Morning Mail.

Matchett wondered whether internal funding would be a luxury that our brave new world of deregulated universities could not offer:

the days when universities can afford such relatively low impact schemes may end once deregulation kicks in – it will be harder to fund lab time or a travel grant from undergraduate fees if they are set in a competitive market.

This got me thinking about the consequences of deleting the capacity-building potential of internal funding for researchers or research projects.

What would happen if this development did not happen at this level? Is helping to build your own institution’s research capacity and experience a ‘luxury’ that universities today can’t afford? Is growing your own fabulous researchers an impossible aim?

Let’s start with a declaration of conflict of interest.

I’m a lecturer in research education and development so, of course, I believe that developing researchers and ‘growing your own’ research capacity is a Good Thing.

At the most fundamental levels, organisations need to invest in the development of their staff. Across many different sectors, research already shows that importing stars has longer-term detrimental effects on staff morale. Often, the ‘stars’ also fail to perform as productively as at their former institutions, and this can be due to the uprooting of these people from embedded support structures (staff and resources) that enabled their success in the first place. These structures may not always work together for that staff in the way they did.

Researchers do not succeed alone, and I’m not talking here about research teams or co-investigators. I’m referring to the research environment that surrounds you: peer cohorts and senior researchers from whom you can learn and gain encouragement; professional administrative staff who boost your ability to do your research and make an impact; and focused funding to make the most of research opportunities and ensure regular runs on the conference board.

Internal funding can be particularly useful when sudden U-turns in institutional priorities leave various researchers out in the cold, outputs-wise. The situation isn’t an indication of those researchers’ skills, except – perhaps – that they failed in crystal-ball-gazing. They are not unsuccessful researchers. Having resources to build a new area can be crucial to their continued, constructive productivity. The same goes for researchers who want, or need, to change their field of research after moving to new institutions or departments.

I see internal funding as a part of active university research cultures. Having supportive and savvy internal programs in place to ensure your researchers are as competitive as possible seems like a no-brainer.

Some academics contest whether internal funding really does create more competitive projects and researchers.

From my experience in research development and as an academic, I’d say it makes good track-records better, and allows proactive researchers to map successful grant trajectories.

Where the jury’s out, however, is whether internal funding can activate and transform the track-records of those who are not particularly grant-ready. On my earlier internal funding post, Andrew Derrington commented:

As a rough generalisation I’d say that the main (only?) good thing about internal funds is that they make it possible to do things – go to a conference, do a piece of research, write a paper, write a research grant or whatever.

Derrington appears dubious that internal funding can do more than a paper here or there. But can it do more than that? I think so, for the reasons I’ve outlined here, and I’m interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this.

If there was little or no internal funding available at your university, how would it have affected you and your work?

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

11 Responses to Is growing your own researchers a luxury?

  1. I agree with you. The point I was making in the quote above was that the fact of having won external funds is itself a feather in your cap, in addition to what you do with the funds, whereas the fact of having won internal funds counts for nothing, particularly outside your own institution.

    Apart from that distinction, money is money and you can do great things with it, whether it’s internal or external. I am very much in favour of institutions giving internal research support. I am against having an expensive competitive process to distribute small amounts of internal funds.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Points taken, Andrew, thank you. I agree re having expensive competitive processes to distribute internal funds. I know of some research managers who are keen to have their staff au fait with major grant conditions so they emulate those schemes’ formats and requirements, but the review/assessment of the applications is nowhere near as rigorous. In general, this can work well to get researchers familiar with the (sometimes) complicated rules and eligibility issues in funding schemes. There can be a fair amount of push-back, too, however, from staff who think it’s too much time spent for too little reward.

  2. socialworknz says:

    An interesting discussion. One real value of internal grants is the experience gained via the process itself- application writing, pulling together a team, recruiting RAs, managing timelines and reporting. Given many external grants want to see evidence of applicants’ experience leading projects , internal grants are vital.
    I do agree that writing a ten page submission to get $1000 for transcribing costs is hardly a good use of time. The processes get more and more complex for very small grants. While this does create the illusion of a competitive environment, given the time others put in to the committee work necessary to manage these ’rounds’ is it really a good investment?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I very much agree about the value of experience gained in grant/project management, esp when starting out, with internal grants. I think it’s particularly effective when it comes to smaller scale industry partnership projects, where planning for a partner’s as well as your own schedules is a good lesson for future (bigger) initiatives.

      Being able to argue that you delivered on what you said you’d do is always a good thing, and I think this holds even if the idea of internal grant funding isn’t as prestigious as external ones. Conversely, not being able to demonstrate that you did good and valuable things with the money you were given (no matter how small the grant) also tells a story.

  3. I think there’s more than just the track record issue to lend advantage to internal schemes. Sometimes a good researcher can get passionate about an idea, but the idea needs to actually develop into a more robust theory or needs to find the best methodology for successful exploration of that idea before they can present it as a feasible research project. Internal schemes are great for transforming nascent ideas into proofs of concept that make later external grant applications far more convincing. Also, in an environment where established working relationships are viewed more favourably, internal schemes can bring teams together so by the time they apply externally, they have evidence of previous successful collaboration.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Yes, I think the trial run phases of early-stage projects can be greatly enhanced by internal funding – for better and worse.

      It can build and generate momentum when the team and project idea are solid; it can be a quick ‘fail’ when they’re not and the researchers can move onto something else that might be more productive!

  4. digiriki says:

    I agree that internal funding helps create a culture that supports research in a good way. I am a newly tenured associate professor at a research/teaching university, so I clearly have a bias. My main point is that for those of us in the humanities, funding can be difficult to come by, so internal support is more crucial. In addition, when a campus puts a great deal of stress on teaching, but has high expectations for research as well, internal funding makes research productivity more possible.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      You’re right, Riki, about the difficult process of getting started, particularly in the humanities. For internal grants, the track-record bar is usually set a bit lower than external schemes so it’s more likely that you can get a good outcome from that avenue.

      That said, I have seen internal schemes that assess candidates on their stellar track-records – I thought the point of internal schemes was to help build staff, not reward those who were already well on their way (but that might be just me…).

      • digiriki says:

        It’s true, internal schemes that are all about getting more money to those who are already ahead of the game doesn’t seem like the best way to build a culture. Our internal structure has favored junior faculty and those who need more support. :)

  5. Peter Bentley says:

    Thanks for the post. Do you have a reference for the research that importing stars has longer-term detrimental effects on staff morale and that they often do not perform? I don’t know of any research on this in an academic context, but it seems like a relevant topic to add to my list of interesting research ideas :)

    Personally, I think that internal schemes ought to be a very small part of the research development process and much more attention needs to be paid to providing continuity so that high potential researchers reach their productivity potential (I am not talking about all researchers, but those who progressively demonstrate performance and potential).

    If one looks at factors associated with publishing productivity (albeit with cross-sectional data, which use in my own research), experience is highly correlated with annual output (though sometimes captured in the effects of seniority). Each year of additional experience steadily increases the mean published output for an individual, but the effects are non-linear and probably plateau at around the 15 year mark. The point is that if research careers are cut-off at around the 3-5 year mark (either through job loss or workload shifts away from research), universities do not really benefit from the productivity gains which come through experience. The same argument can be applied to teaching, people likely get more productive with each year of experience (up to a threshold), but if the timeframes of employment are short, universities end up with many relatively inexperienced and lowly productive staff.

    Unfortunately, I think that universities are clued on to the fact that they do not need to develop their own researchers and can rely on poaching people once they reach a certain threshold of demonstrated publishing productivity. Unlike soccer teams, who are compensated when their junior players who they developed are lured by the big clubs, universities simply lose staff which they have invested resources in to. I am not saying that universities don’t develop their own, but if one was wanting to maximise research output quickly, I feel it would more easily come from poaching established people who other universities (often in other countries) have developed. But then again, maybe I am wrong. As you wrote, stars do not always perform after being poached.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Hi Peter

      Thanks for your comment, thoughtful and thought-provoking as always. Aside from various magazine articles I read through (and didn’t save!) when I was writing this post, there’s this article in the Harvard Business Review: “The risky business of hiring stars“. Wasn’t sure when you said “academic context” whether you meant academic journal paper, or about the academic sector in particular. If it was the latter, I didn’t find (on a quick skim) any research that examined the importing of research stars to universities specifically (beyond the NTEU report on ERA – there were some interview snippets that alluded to morale of the dept/school into which research stars were hired).

      I agree that internal funding is only a small part of research development more broadly, but I do feel it’s a necessary (even if modest) element. It’s very interesting to read about your work on when researchers are in their prime of research productivity. While I agree that many institutions are active about (reliant on) poaching rising or established research stars, it will be interesting to see what the dynamic settles into once we’re through the initial jockeying for ERA positions (if ERA stays, but I suppose it’ll be one research excellence model or another). There seems to be a big interest in the possibility of “academic moneyball” structures (see Jason Priem’s piece HERE). One quote that has stayed with me is this: “instead of trying to field teams of identical superstars, [the academic science sector] will leverage nuanced impact data to build teams of specialists who add up to more than the sum of their parts” (Priem).

      In the midst of all this, I hope that the importing of ‘stars’ is accompanied by institutional strategies that support and give opportunities to researchers to climb the career ladder + reach their potential. After all, while there are the bloody-minded fiscal concerns, academia needs to also have a more sophisticated approach to the sector they are creating and having to sustain.

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