12 March 2013 7 Comments
In the broadest sense, what he does can be described as Design Research. Ben’s background is in what people call “IT”, though he has spent most of his time thinking about how people use technology in their work and life.
His PhD was about the lived experience of people who use large vocabulary speech recognition systems in the workplace.
Recent ideas for “fixing” research grants have proposed long-term grants as a potential solution.
As a post-doc on soft money, long-term grants only seem to solve the problems of established professors whose problem isn’t getting grants, but keeping their lab or group liquid for the medium to long-term.
I fear that long-term grants will turn the early career researcher’s (ECR) problem of getting a grant into the problem of getting a job. But with fewer, bigger projects about, that could get harder, not easier.
With a five-year window for refreshing the pool of money that’s around, the stakes get higher not lower.
Let’s engage in some (pessimistic) scenario-planning: What happens if the ARC scraps 3-year Discovery grants in favour of grants with a 5-year time-frame?
These 5-year grants might not just fund a project, but might fund a lab more generally. A professor in charge of a 5-year-funded lab would be wise to have several projects on the go and at several different timescales.
It would be sensible to plan for expensive long-term projects with a guaranteed pay-off and cheaper short-term projects that are riskier (or, if you like, more innovative). You’d keep some money aside for taking advantage of short-term projects that pay off, or for spinning off new projects if the wider research environment changes.
These long- and short-term projects would need people to work on them. As a post-doc or ECR, the best type of project to be associated with would be a long-term one that’s a continuation of your previous research. But post-docs and ECRs are expensive compared to PhD students and, if the project is a slow burn with a guaranteed payoff, it’s the perfect kind of thing for a PhD project or two. In this situation, the short-term riskier projects will be staffed by contract post-docs.
Even in the best case, a student who starts their PhD at the beginning of a five-year project might get a two-year post-doc from it. By then, they’re an experienced researcher who’ll be wanting some security. In the best case, the lab will get another 5-year injection and one, or maybe two, lucky post-docs will get to stay on and cement their track record. Some (many?) PhDs will move into industry, but the rest will be left in the same position many ECRs are now — looking for stability but taking short-term contracts, with little opportunity to build a track record.
An even more pessimistic scenario is that long-term grants will put a use-by date on ECR PhDs.
If you want to stay in academia but aren’t lucky enough to have a supportive Lab director after that first post-doc, you’ll be competing for your next contract with newly minted PhDs who are cheaper and have more recent experience.
In fact, this is the situation right now:
One respondent said: “I desperately want to stay in research but I’m … being pushed out due to: student researchers being cheaper to employ to do the same thing I do in the lab. … I’ve hit the top of my pay scale and can’t move up the ladder without obtaining a grant. [SOURCE]
These proposed long-term grants might keep a Lab going, but they really aren’t addressed at the concerns of researchers starting out.
I have another fear about long-term grants and that’s for mid-career academics.
A long-term grant will be a really large amount of money. The average 3-year Discovery gets $300,000 and a 3-year NHMRC gets closer to $600,000, so a 5-year grant could easily touch seven figures.
In the long-term grant scenario, assuming you’ve been fortunate enough to have two solid post-doctoral contracts and you’re looking to establish your own beachhead, you need a lab and labs are funded by 5-year grants. But you’ve never led a project with more than a part-time RA. Will the granting body give you a cool million? It’s hard enough to get a small Discovery with that sort of track record. In the long-term grant world, how does an mid-career researcher (MCR) get the sort of experience necessary to lead a 5-year project?
Let’s get even more pessimistic: An MCR who misses out on a 5-year grant a few times hasn’t had the opportunity to build the kind of really strong track record that’d be necessary to get one. There’d also be the problem of MCRs competing for long-term grants against established labs.
For me, as an ECR moving into being an MCR, long-term grants don’t solve any of my problems and could possibly exacerbate them.
ECRs and MCRs need shorter term funding that’s easier to get.
Right now it’s not clear if long-term grants are even a policy option that’s seriously being considered. But it is worth talking about because it would be a major change in policy that will have consequences.
Are these the consequences we want?