Openness and security

For the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) 2018 conference, Ipshita Ghose asked Adam Golberg, Bo Alroe and I to help out with a workshop about how technology changes the research development role. I’d just like to thank them for the chance to reflect on how our processes may change in the future.  


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Page 1 of a US Department of Defence document with heavy redactions.

Redacted document, via Wikimedia Commons

This statement is standard boilerplate at a lot of universities (and other organisations). It is designed to demonstrate due diligence in reducing risk, I think.

For me, this statement encapsulates the disjunction between where our researchers are going, and where the university administration stands. Research is becoming more and more open. Open journals, open data, open everything.

As administrators, we remain steadfastly closed. Grant applications are confidential. Research contracts are confidential. Even our emails are confidential. There are good reasons for this confidentiality, in some instances. A lot of the time, though, confidentiality in administration is business-as-usual atrophy. An all-pervasive attitude that we don’t even think about anymore.

This blog is a good example of that. For the last seven years, we’ve published an article every week (almost) about doing research in academia. All the articles are available for everybody to read. When we first proposed this idea, our manager was quite suspicious. Why would we want to give away the university’s “secret sauce”? Wouldn’t that make us less competitive? Actually, when it comes to constructing a good budget, or a Gantt chart, or most anything else about what we do, there is no secret sauce. It is all standard stuff. But thinking about our professional practice every week, and publishing it openly for others, has been enormously beneficial.

Lately, I’ve been trying to take this administrative openness a step further. I’ve been arguing that the development programs that I run should be open to anyone, whether they come from my university or not. My blueprint here is Shut Up and Write. Every Friday morning, we invite all comers to join us in a cafe to get some writing done. Twenty-five minutes at a time, we shut up and write. Then we take five minutes to chat and get a coffee. Then we do it all again and again. Postgrad students love this, and we get students from universities all over Melbourne, as well as some creative writers and other non-academic bods. We get to talk about what is happening in people’s lives in a casual, relaxed manner. It’s nice.

I’m trying to bring that sense of openness and sharing to other research training programs that I run. It makes sense to me. My university isn’t research intensive, so there isn’t a lot of depth in any given discipline. Having people from other universities in the room gives my peeps some sense of where the level of competition is. Plus… it’s nice.

It also means that I need to lift my game (which is hard). If I’m running something that is open to strangers, I need to think a bit harder about how I present it, how I advertise it, and how I run it. It can’t be my usual last-minute dash. So, I produce a better program.

When I’ve presented this idea to my bosses, it has generally been well received. But I’ve had to consciously turn my thinking in that direction and ask permission to do it. I’m so used to thinking about keeping everything in-house and close to the chest. That attitude is so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine an open administrative world.

Shut Up and Write works for people who have laptops, and who can work without a bookshelf of books and a filing cabinet of notes behind them. That’s me. With my documents in the cloud, I can get them from anywhere and share them with anyone. My mobile phone is so much a part of my practice now that I’m surprised when my desk phone rings. I can work anywhere.

I know that because I worked in China for six months. If you can work through the Great Firewall of China, you can work anywhere that has Internet. Time-zones aside, there is very little that stops us from working wherever we are, except for convention. Sure, face-to-face meetings are better for understanding what your researchers are actually trying to do, but apart from that, most of my working life is email. I can email from anywhere.

The trouble is, so can anyone else. While our researchers have become more open, they’ve also become more insecure. It is my understanding that 60% of the staff at my university are paid by the hour, on employment contracts similar to what they would have if they were stacking shelves at a supermarket. People may argue over that percentage, but I think that everybody agrees that the percentage itself is growing, not shrinking.

If I was to make one prediction today, it would be that our employment will get less secure into the future. Partly, that is because I think that we are stuck with economic rationalism for the foreseeable future. Partly, it is because there are a lot of people in the world who can do my job just as well as I can, but much more cheaply.

I work in grant development. At its most basic, my job works like this:

Professor Needs-Grant tells me that she is going to apply for a Great Big grant, from the Nice Ideas Research Council. I read the rules and guidelines for the Great Big grant scheme. I do a bit of due diligence on the Nice Ideas Research Council, looking at what (and who) they have funded in the past. Then I read Prof Needs-Grant’s draft and offer suggestions on how to improve it. If I have time (and the application needs it) I might rewrite chunks of the application, to clarify things and provide a working example of how it could be written. If necessary, I might build a draft budget from Prof Needs-Grant’s shopping list. My advice is based on being an intelligent reader (so I can spot a logical fallacy), who has read a lot of grant applications (so I can provide strategic advice) and knows the rules for the scheme (so I can advise on compliance matters).

If you believe that I’m the only person who can do that, then you are fooling yourself. No secret sauce, remember. I cost my university about A$140,000 per annum, once you take into account my seniority, length of service and salary on-costs. If you believe that there aren’t legions of people out there who could do my job as well as I could for half the cost, you are doubly fooling yourself. The university would save A$20,000 just by moving me from a permanent contract to a paid-by-the-hour contract. Imagine what my university would save if they gave my job to any one of the millions of seriously smart, seriously keen, seriously underpaid research administrators in China, India, Africa…pretty much anywhere actually. You can take your pick.

At the moment, one of the things that protects me is our need for confidentiality. Senior researchers would get seriously worried if their draft application was being sent to someone that they didn’t know, and didn’t trust, in another country. They trust me and the institutional structures that I work within.

It turns out, though, that not all research funding applications need to be confidential. Crowdfunding for research, for example, makes a virtue out being open with your research ideas. It is axiomatic that you can’t crowdfund in secret. You have to do it in the open, appealing to the public for funds. Confidentiality doesn’t come into the picture.

Nor does all research administration need to be provided by the university. I know this because I hire people from outside my university to provide my researchers with something that we just don’t have – decades of experience in winning tier-one grants. I hire emeritus professors to provide depth of experience at winning grants in specific disciplines.

Can I imagine a future when my job gets outsourced? Absolutely, I can. I image it happening in two different ways.

  1. My university might get sick of its cycle of centralising and decentralising administrative services. It might decide that its core business is teaching and research, not teaching administration and research administration. It could outsource all administration (including me).
  2. The university might do away with my specific function. Enterprising researchers with flexible funds could look for someone who can give them the service that they want, at a price that they can afford. They don’t need to meet face to face – email and Skype will do. They do this already for services like transcription. Why not do it for the service that I provide?

I don’t think that there is any danger of this happening any time soon. I like to think of my job as secure. In the back of my mind, though, I know it really isn’t. That doesn’t worry me too much.

What does worry me is where all this is going. Our universities are becoming more and more colonial, with a rump of secure people at the top and a sea of insecure people beneath them. We don’t have to look too far into the past to know how that plays out in the end.


Update 5 June 2018. After I wrote this, Bo Alroe commented:

In addition to the closed “culture-based” attitude you described in this article, I have sometimes observed another form of closedness.

I have implemented research management systems and consulted in that space; UK, Australia, Western Europe. What we often saw was data of such poor quality or produced so directly with internal use cases in mind, that any form of external sharing was impossible.

This was often true for data with high relevance outside of the universities such as publications, grey literature, grant records, public staff data, datasets, equipment holdings, tech transfer info, courses data, and more. Not only was it technically unfit for external sharing, the same was often also true for internal sharing; I remember one case where financial data was sorely needed in one project internally, where the finance department first refused to share it (your culture-based reflex attitude) and then when they were asked to do so by upper management, it turned out to be of too poor quality, the result of a data governance mindset in which nothing will ever be shared anyway.

Update: 12 June 2018. After I wrote this, Adam Golberg commented:

I think I’d push back a little on the idea that it’s only the confidentiality element that prevents a kind of zero-hours/contracting out of research development support for grant applications. I think if there is a “secret sauce”, it’s pre-existing relationships and reputations. It’s obviously not enough being right about a particular point, it’s about being able to turn that insight into advice that’s acted upon, even if – and perhaps especially if – it’s advice that the applicant doesn’t want to hear. I don’t think I’m necessarily any more persuasive or any more insightful than a bunch of other people who could do the job (either permanently or via less secure forms of work), but it’s that I’ve worked with that researcher before, or worked with people that the researcher knows and respects and who can vouch for me.

Of course, whether the capacity to develop relationships and/or be accessible locally in person and/or build up reputation and credibility is worth paying that extra money for is another argument.

My job has changed in the last few years such that I’m now covering a much broader patch, and I am working with a number of people I’ve never met in person. It’s interesting how much harder that’s been.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia.

9 Responses to Openness and security

  1. Sarah says:

    I’ve been having these same thoughts for a while. Good grant-writing is universal. University grant-application assistance documents are variants of the same kind of information. Why be so secretive? The process you describe sums it up beautifully. I would say one thing though – I disagree that anyone can do this work. I have seen a number of people (even with PhDs) fall short because they don’t have some of the following: common sense(!), a service ethos, excellent people/communication skills, a very sharp eye for detail and precision *along with* an ability to also see the bigger picture, strategic thinking skills and excellent writing skills (including the ability to understand and convey the essence of what is really being said).

    I do agree that *elements* of this can be outsourced and there are consultants doing just that. However, having a good working relationship with reliable research admins is often underestimated in its importance. People want to work with those they know and trust, especially if hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake. Plus admins have to use a lot of in-house systems, so I think your job is safe for now!

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Sarah

      I just added an update from Adam Golberg that says something similar. I think that empathy is a key element in this, too.

      Maybe I was just in a bit of a dark place when I wrote this. 🙂

      Like

  2. kylieball3 says:

    Great post Jonathan. I strongly believe there are innumerable benefits to our disciplines, to research and to the community and other end-users/beneficiaries of that research, that stem from enabling and fostering a more skilled and engaged research workforce as a whole, rather than only within institutional silos.

    Like

  3. Lachlan Smith says:

    A really helpful and interesting post. As someone who used to work for universities in roles like yours but now does it on a consultancy basis I have some experience from both sides of the fence. What I would say, and this reflects some of the comments received so far, is that building personal relationships is key and bringing in ad hoc research and grant writing support is, in my opinion, less effective than having a longer term relationship. Understanding the researcher is more than just reading drafts of research grants. The clients of mine who have been more successful have all built longer term relationships with me.

    Having said all of that, with budget cuts and the rationalising of services in HE it might be that these services are outsourced as universities look to save money. Ultimately though I think they would be brought back in house as you get more bang for your buck that way. I encourage my clients to build up the capacity and expertise in house and not rely on my companies services as it will be more effective for them in the long term.

    This is a really thought provoking topic though and I think there is scope for greater collaboration between institutions when it comes to researcher development. I think it is great that SUAW is now open more widely. This can only have positive results.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Lachlan. I hope that things are going well for you, now that you’ve jumped the fence. Jonathan

      Like

  4. Jonathan, if you want to run a development program open to anyone, then you need to work out who is going to pay you to do that. As an example, I create open courseware for universities, which they are happy to use, but not pay me for the development of. Universities will pay me for course delivery, but it can be a battle with boilerplate contracts which say the university owns everything I do. I have to cross out and write in that I will grant the university a non-exclusive license to my material.

    You suggest the core business of a university is teaching and research, but I am not so sure. The core business might be quality control of education and research. The university provides a place (increasingly virtual) for these things to happen, but the university itself doesn’t do the education or research. At the end of my talk at EduTECH a few weeks ago I quoted Robert Pirsig “…the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers …”. http://www.tomw.net.au/technology/it/eportfolios/

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Tom. It is a good point. I’ve been thinking about the delivery of the training, rather than the content.

      I absolutely understand the issue around universities being happy to pay for course delivery, as opposed to course content. I’d be more than happy to have someone come in from outside to deliver the same content multiple times, because they are experts in their topic. It is a false economy for me to make a hash of delivering their content, no matter what the contract says.

      I love the idea that the core business of universities is the quality control of teaching and research. Makes sense to me.

      Like

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