Opiniomics

bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

How to not sack your professors

I have to admit to being  bit shaken by two recent events in UK academia – the tragic death of Stefan Grimm, a Professor at Imperial College, who had recently been told he was “struggling” to “fulfil the metrics” (grant income of £200k per annum); and the sacking of Dr Alison Hayman, a lecturer at Bristol University, for failing to generate enough income from grants.

Let me be clear – this post is not an attack on Imperial nor Bristol, and I am in no way suggesting either has done anything wrong.  I don’t know enough about either case to pass judgement.

Nor do I have a problem with institutions taking steps to remove people from their post who are not performing satisfactorily.  We are all paid to do a job, and we need to do it.  (Note I am not suggesting that there was a problem with either Stefan or Alison’s performance; I don’t know enough to pass judgement)

However, I do have an issue with judging an academics performance by only a single metric – how much money they have “won” in grants.  Firstly because the grants system can be hugely unfair; secondly, and more importantly, because winning grants is not something we do alone, it is a collaboration with other scientists, and also a collaboration with the institution where we work.

In this collaboration, the role of the PI is to come up with fundable ideas; and the role of the institution is to provide an environment conducive to getting those ideas funded.  I don’t think it is fair to sack someone for not winning grants if you have failed to provide an environment within which it is easy to do so.

I am very lucky, because the institution where I work, The Roslin Institute, is exceptional at this.  So I am going to pass on a few tips, simple things that academic institutions can implement, which will mean that no-one has to sack any more academics.

1. Provide funding

This will probably have the biggest impact, but comes at the highest cost.  In my experience, nothing makes a grant more fundable than some promising preliminary data.  Generating data costs money, but it takes data to generate money.  So fund up front.  Give every PI a budget to spend every year with the explicit intention that it should be spent to generate preliminary data for grant applications.  This single, simple step will likely have a greater impact on your grant success than any other.  And make sure it is a decent sum of money.  I recall speaking to a PI from a UK University who told me that each PI gets £150 per year, and out of that they need to pay for printing.  Printing.  3 pence a sheet.  That was over 10 years ago and I’m still shocked today.

2. Cut the admin

Every minute your PIs spend on compulsory training courses, filling in forms, filling in reports, dredging your awful intranet for information that should be easy to find, filling in spreadsheets, monitoring budgets, calculating costs, dealing with pointless emails and attending meetings is a minute they are not spending writing grants and papers.  Cut. The. Admin.  In fact, employ administrators to do the admin.  It’s what they’re good at.

3. Perform independent QC

So  one of your PIs grant proposals are repeatedly rejected.  Does that make them bad proposals?  Or bad ideas?  Perhaps they are excellent proposals, but they don’t hit the right priorities (which means they didn’t go to the right funder, and that might be your fault).  Read the grants yourself and form your own opinion.  Collect the review reports.  Collect the feedback from the funders.  Were they bad proposals?  Or were they good proposals that didn’t get funded?  I really don’t think it’s tenable to sack people if they repeatedly submit grant proposals that are rated as fundable by the committee concerned.  At that point the PI has done their job.

You might also think about putting in place an internal group of senior academics to survey proposals before they are submitted.  This will give you the opportunity to provide feedback on proposals and perhaps make them more fundable before they even reach the grant committee.  Proposals which are really not ready can be kept over until the next submission date, giving time for more improvements

4. Provide support

Do I even need to say this?  For the PIs who have their grants rejected, give them some support.  Give them a mentor, someone who gets a lot of proposals funded.  Provide training and workshops.  Share tips for success.  Sit with them and discuss their ideas, try and influence their future direction.  Do everything you possibly can to help them.

5. Pay it forwards

Every institution has their superstars, the guys who only need to wink at a committee and they’ll get funded.  But those guys, those professors with 10 post-docs and 15 students, they’re black holes that can suck in all the funding around them, making it difficult for others to get a fair share of the pot.  As an institution, you don’t want them to stop, because you want the funding, of course; but there is a compromise, where these superstars share their knowledge and expertise, where they co-author proposals with less successful (perhaps more junior) PIs, lending their name and their weight, their reputation and gravitas, to a proposal.  When the proposal is funded, it is the junior PI who runs the grant and gets the last author publications.  It doesn’t matter to the more senior PI as they probably already have tenure and an H index north of 50.  So pass it on.  Pay it forwards. Transfer that wonderful grantsmanship to the next generation, and coach your next round of superstars.

6. Be excellent

Yes, you.  The institution.  Be excellent at something.  I don’t care whether it’s medicine or ecology, worms or plants or cats or humans, evolution or botany, I couldn’t care less, but choose something and be excellent at it.  Invest in it.  Create a global reputation for that thing so that when reviewers see a proposal they immediately think “these guys know what they’re doing”.  Make sure you have the equipment and the facilities to do it (see 8).

7. Make it easy to work with industry

As PIs we are increasingly being pushed to generate “impact”, and one way of doing this is to collaborate with industry.  But this is a skill and some institutions are very good at it, others very bad.  Be one of the good ones.  Create strategic partnerships with industry, pump-prime some work (again to generate preliminary data), run workshops and industry days and have a legal team that are set up to make it work, rather than to make it difficult.  There are lots of funding streams available only to academic-industrial partnerships, and you’d be insane to ignore them.

8. Invest in infrastructure

Make sure you have the right equipment, the right type of lab, and the right computing to ensure PIs can actually do science.  It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many institutions are out there that simply don’t provide adequate facilities and infrastructure.

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So, there it is.  I’ve run out of suggestions.  As I said above, I am very lucky, I work at The Roslin Institute, which does as much as it possibly can to create an environment where PIs win grants.

Here’s the thing – if you think your staff are failing, for whatever reason, the very first thing you should do is ask yourself this question “Is it our fault?  Could we have done anything more to help them?”.  I’d argue that, in most cases, the answer to both would be “Yes”.  We all share in the success of published papers and grants won; so don’t forget that there is a shared responsibility in failure, and if some of your PIs are not winning grants, at least some of that is the institution’s fault.

16 Comments

  1. Here’s the question: Is your institution actual employment or a franchise opportunity? In the first one, you may choose to have metrics related to accomplishing some mission – inventions, papers, progress towards curing a disease, students educated. You may use these formally or informally to decide what roles need to be filled and who should fill them; and secondarily, whether the performance is good.

    However, if the institution is a franchise opportunity, then each kettle is on its own bottom, so to speak, and the bottom line is funding. As long as the person does not ‘damage the brand’ in some heinous way, there is only one metric. The individual gets free rein, within reason, and success breeds success. Upward spirals and downward spirals are expected. A winner may change the institution to improve internal support or reduce internal competition… but only because he possesses the ability to move to another institution and take all that overhead.

    Is this how we want the academy to operate?

  2. The thing is, it is all good and well to say that institutions should “provide funding”, “invest in infrastructure” and “employ administrators to do the admin”, but how do you expect these things to be paid for?

    Increasingly, the costs of institutions come out of the indirect costs on grants the PIs get. It’s a vicious cycle. An institution that is having a hard time getting grants will have to lay off support staff, not have internal funds for preliminary work, and not have the money to improve infrastructure. Which in turn makes the institution even less likely to get grants in the future.

  3. “employ administrators to do the admin”

    But there are so many articles saying how insane it is that institutions employ the number of administrators that they currently employ, and you want them to employ more?

  4. I think you’re right that Institutions should not absolve themselves of blame if PIs are not getting funding. I know places where support is zero and where vaguely successful PIs would see helping “failing” PIs as a waste of their time (#4 and #5). However, those places would point to the fact that because some PIs can get grants, there is no problem with the Institution and all blame rests with the “failing” PI.

  5. This is a very good question, and I do have a lot of sympathy for institutions – they face increasing costs, increasing scrutiny, increasing reporting and decreasing funding.

    It’s a tough problem, but I wanted to make this post about the PIs 🙂

  6. If you read carefully, I say that I want the administrators to do the administration. Too often, in my previous jobs, the role of the administrator has been to nag the PIs to do something. Well why doesn’t the administrator do that thing instead? Simple example: here at Roslin, the finance team calculate all grant costs and enter them into the form for us. It works beautifully, saves us time and prevents mistakes.

  7. Well I think people need to think hard about where they work and whether it is the best place for them!

  8. Damn! Bristol fired someone for not getting GBP200K a year?? That would mean all but one or two of my colleagues here in my Dept at the University of Cape Town would be sacked! VERY First World of them.

  9. Yeah, it’s kind of shocking isn’t it?

  10. One thing that isn’t mentioned here is expectations. Do institutions have reasonable expectations from the people they hire? With grant success rates being what they are, how much can we expect someone to pull in? Offically, the BBSRC has a 27% funding rate. But thats for all its schemes. If you just take standard, responsive mode grants, its probably much lower. The MRC has lower success rates. So if you have a department of 30 academics, how many of them can you expect, reasonably, to be funded at any one time?

    Also there is another problem with measuring people on their grant income in addition to the system being unfair and that the institution may be to blame for the failure. And that is something that as a bioinformatician (like me), you should understand: is discourages cheap research. If I can change the world with just me, my PhD student and a computer, that should be great. But the powers-that-be would hate it, because it doesn’t bring in any money.

  11. I absolutely agree. I think if your papers are being published and your grants are being graded as fundable, then as a PI you are doing your job to a satisfactory level. Whether or not your grants get funded is dependent on so many external factors, it is really unfair to base performance on that.

    Sadly I think we will see more of these stories as funding cuts bite further.

  12. I think the £200K requirement applies to Stefan Grimm (and, in general, all professors at the School of Medicine at Imperial), not to lecturers at Bristol.

  13. Note Warwick medics need to secure between £90k and 150k per year

    http://epigram.org.uk/news/2015/02/ucu-launches-campaign-to-reinstate-dismissed-lecturer

    (Near the bottom)

  14. US grad student

    5th March 2015 at 7:37 am

    Is this the prof’s main job to get grant or work with industry to get more $$? What about the students? Want them to get data to make more $$? Teaching or mentoring are trivial in this sense.

  15. Once upon a time (and I’m talking a long time ago here), the bargain between a prof and the university was that the prof was hired to teach, and in return was allowed the time and facilities to conduct their research. The research was in some ways something the prof did for their own interest and the university allowed.

    Over time, two things happened. Firstly a universities reputation, and therefore its ability to attract students, became more dependent on the research outputs of its staff. Secondly research income (in the form of grant overheads and industrial money) became a larger part of a university’s income in its own right.

    It seems to me that we have now moved to a place whereby the bargain is that the prof makes money for the university, through the recruitment of students and the winning of grants and industrial money, and if they are successful they are allowed to do research. It is very easy in this situation for students to only matter in that they bring in income and so you need a good reputation to make money from them. At my own institution, I do believe that people in power (at least at the level I have contact with) do actually care about the education the students receive (at the undergrad level anyway), but one can see how this could easily not be the case.

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