Directing research

Over the past decade or so, Irish universities have pushed for far more generous research funding. While we do not know right now how such funding will develop during the current difficult economic climate, there is no doubt that in recent years funding levels became much more competitive when benchmarked against other developed countries. However, in handing out research grants the Irish research funding agencies have increasingly judged proposals against their compatibility with the universities’ strategic plans.

To award research funding where the proposals are in line with the institution’s research strategy requires the institution to have a research strategy, and to be able to show that it is being implemented. This is however at odds with a culture in some circles that rejects the validity of coordinated research in the first place. Such an approach will have received some comfort last year from the Labour Court’s recommendation in the dispute between Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Federation of University Teachers. In that case a Geography lecturer objected to a request from his Head of Department for individual ‘research plans’. The Labour Court urged the parties to resolve the matter through bargaining between the union and the College, so that it did not answer the question as to the appropriateness or otherwise of coordinated or directed research.

The idea that academics should freely choose their own research agenda without any input from the university is an attractive one for staff, but it is probably not sustainable. These days research plans often involve significant funding and large potential liabilities, so that universities need to be in a position to make strategic and focused choices.  That is not to say that academic autonomy in these matters should be brought to an end, but rather that there has to be a partnership between the individual researcher and the institution in these matters. The days when a professor might suggest to the university that his or her research plans are none of its business are over. If a university adopted that approach it would not be able to facilitate much research at all, because little of it would be funded.

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23 Comments on “Directing research”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    The idea that academics should freely choose their own research agenda without any input from the university is an attractive one for staff, but it is probably not sustainable.

    Is nobody in higher education administration on this island the slightest bit aware that the main competition that Ireland’s universities are involved in is not the phoney competitions in terms of ‘research output’ or idiotic ‘league tables’ but, rather, the international competition for talented staff? Start telling your academic staff what they should be researching and you’ll lose the most talented ones to other universities that provide the freedom that you do not. And believe me there is no shortage of great universities (in fact, all the greatest ones) that do not micromanage the research agendas of their staff. In short, it is false that “The days when a professor might suggest to the university that his or her research plans are none of its business are over”. That may be true (alas) in the UK and Ireland but it’s hardly worth pointing out that that’s not the entire world. Enlightened management everywhere (and not just in universities) recognizes that highly-trained professionals are best left to get on with their work and that decisions are best made at the lowest feasible level of the hierarchy. The alternative is to let those who know virtually nothing about any given field (because no one, not even an administrator!, can know everything about every field) start dictating what is to be done. And, no, not all of the universities that let those most expert get on with their jobs are private universities.

    University Presidents and politicians here seem to think that they have some sort of captive labour market upon which they can impose what they will. In this, they’ve no doubt been influenced in part by Sindo-style tarring of public-sector workers (as cossetted, comfy and secure). They ignore the fact that academics are particularly mobile. Start telling them that they’re “too comfortable” and they’ll leave. It’s already happening. And if you think that Ireland can produce enough excellent PhDs to replace them, well, I guess you’ll find out how wrong you are.

  2. My research plans are I am afraid none of my university’s business. A lot of my research requires no funding. Some of it does, and then I raise the money myself, for example through my recent ERC Advanced Investigator Award, or successive FPn grants. Does Ireland want people like me to work here? Quite possibly not — cats like me will not allow themselves to be herded. But if it does (and if it wants a competitive university system then it should), then the people running its universities will not question my academic freedom. It wouldn’t be questioned in the Harvards or Columbias of the world, both universities where I have worked. It’s the desire to further my intellectual agenda that makes me go out and raise money — the money follows the agenda, not vice versa.

    Shame that one has to spell this out.

    • Kevin, I think there is a major difference between saying that you should have the right to determine and work on your research plans on the one hand, and saying they are ‘none of your university’s business’ on the other. Clearly the university has a direct stake in the quality of what you do – and how you do it will affect the university’s reputation, its income, its standing with stakeholders, and so on. Furthermore, your pursuit of funding on an individual basis can compromise the university’s interests – for example cutting off opportunities for funding for others.

      It is not my argument or my contention that everyone’s research should be directed, managed or coordinated. I think the greatest possible intellectual autonomy is best. But there is a community interest in this, and that needs to be managed appropriately – and getting the balance right is what the best universities do. And you are wrong if you are suggesting that Columbia doesn’t do this – I had a whole-day seminar from them recently explaining to me how they do it, and they do exactly what I have set out above!

  3. Maestro Says:

    I would like to refer the author to the 1997 University’s Act which enshrines Academic Freedom – this encompasses the right to choose one’s own research direction.

    Even in the private sector companies such as Google give staff 20% of their time to pursue private projects.

    As Ernie commented above, introduce this and you will destroy our standing within the international academic and research community.

    • Maestro, when you say ‘introduce this’ – what do you mean by ‘this’? I would not disagree with anything you have written in your comment, so I don’t necessarily think we are at cross purposes. I would absolutely never direct anyone to pursue a particular line of research; moreover I would regard that as totally inappropriate.

      • Maestro Says:

        Ferdinand, what I was referring to as ‘this’ is the control and management of an academic’s research direction.

        The picture you paint above is one of contract research – where the University decides what is in its best interest, and steers and promotes (all positive terms unlike direct=management) staff to conduct that research, at the expense of the individual’s research interests.

        The potential for universities to become nothing more than research hotels, and places where industry (who seem to determine national policy) can get research done cheaply is great.

  4. Ferdinand, do you really think my getting an FP7 grant or an ERC grant imposes costs on my colleagues by squeezing them out? Surely not: these are pan-European competitions, I am squeezing out non-Irish academics, and I would think that is good for Ireland. Would you not agree?

    Yes, the university benefits from (‘has a stake in’) having good academics who have strong international reputations and do good work. Of course. This is why it needs to attract and retain them. Threatening academic freedom is no way to do that.

    The really worrying sentence in your post, and the one I should have focussed on, is

    “The idea that academics should freely choose their own research agenda without any input from the university is an attractive one for staff, but it is probably not sustainable.”

    This is pretty inflammatory stuff. I can guarantee you that at the great universities of the world — where many of my friends, co-authors and colleagues work, and in some of which as I said I have worked myself — academics are indeed free to choose their own research agendas, without any ‘input from the university’. Yes, there can be informal mentoring of young staff by their department colleagues, who can give advice and so forth, and this is a good thing. But academic freedom remains the cornerstone of university life out there in the big bad world, and if Ireland wants to attract half-decent academics its universities will have to accept that.

    • Kevin, you are trying to create differences between us that aren’t there. There are many ways for a university to have an ‘input’. For example, if you want to pursue a research grant and need accommodation, you ask for it – and whatever response you get is an input. You take your research profile and apply for promotion: the response is an input; and so forth. The idea that academics are self-employed and owe nothing to the community of which they are a part is not one that could be sustained, and to be fair I wouldn’t think many would take that approach.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    I wonder are the differences between Ferdinand’s position and say Ernie Ball & Kevin O’Rourke as great as they seem. I hope not & I generally agree with what the latter two say.
    I think it would be helpful if FvP outlined the circumstances under which a university had some right or strategic interest to influence what academics work on. Examples please!
    The only obvious circumstances that I can think of are capacity constraints. Let us say I’m thinking of applying for a big grant for a project that’s going to require facilities. Obviously I have to establish whether those facilities are going to be available to me [& hence not someone else]. Or say my grant was going to get me off teaching for a few years? Thats something I would need to negotiate with the university. So I think most academics understand that we don’t have a divine right to facilities or time off teaching but would not accept universities saying “well we would like you to work on X and not Y”.
    In effect, all Irish universities have influenced what sort of research goes on by deciding what is part of a university’s PRTLI bid. And when you benefit from this (as I have) then it all makes sense. But when you are not part of the ticket (as I also have been) then its outrageous.

    • Kevin, your examples are pretty much spot on. Bear in mind also that you, too, are ‘the university’. I notice that many of those responding to this post assume that ‘the university’ is someone else – probably an ignorant senior management. I don’t see it that way.

  6. @Kevin: great points. Allocating office space and slots in a PRTLI bid are obviously things a central university administration has to do. And they can also identify strategic priorities in terms of hiring policy. That’s very different from having an ‘input’ into the research agendas of individual academics, once they have been hired.

  7. […] some reason I kept thinking of grey philistines and also of a conversation earlier today here. They connect  – somewhere around the notion of direction, autonomy, and respect. Or lack of […]

  8. Should individual academics be free to “choose their own research agenda” Ferdinand? If you agree that they should, then there is no disagreement between us.

    • Absolutely: every academic should determine for themselves what it is they want to research. The partnership between the academic and the university lies in deciding how that research should be developed, funded and supported.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        That all sounds fine except for the idea of the university ‘deciding how that research should be developed’. Can you explain what exactly you mean? Who do you mean by ‘the university’? Peers from the same discipline, peers from other disciplines, administrators? And what are they to have a say about exactly: methodology, lines of enquiry, what?

        There are a number of very good reasons not to allow administrators to have any say whatever about what research is conducted by tenured members of staff. The main one is this: they know nothing about it. There is still a difference between knowledge and ignorance and there is absolutely no reason to allow the ignorant to have their say about how knowledge is pursued.

        There are also good reasons not to allow peers to determine how the individual researcher goes about their business (allowing them to discuss and consult on such matters is, of course, a different story, provided there’s no coercion involved). Among those good reasons: the university as an institution distinguishes itself from, say, the corporation, in that in the university groupthink is to be avoided. The university is the sort of dialectical institution premised on the idea that it is the clash of wide range of viewpoints that will result in the discovery of truths. The notion of ‘directed research’ is, on its face, inimical to that vision of the university. It is not some sort of ‘new adaptation’ of the idea of a university for some new set of conditions. Rather, it is a perversion of the idea of a university by (mercenary) interests. And if you think otherwise, then the onus is on you to explain what exactly has changed, beyond nebulous boilerplate about this being ‘the 21st century’ or what have you, that justifies jettisoning ways of doing things that have served humanity very well for over 500 years. Unless, that is, you think that nothing has changed but it’s just that the university as an institution has been some sort of failure over the last 500 years. I would suggest that this latter view is not borne out by the facts.

        Obviously we in universities don’t always avoid groupthink successfully but I would even hazard that the value of a university to the society to which it contributes can be measured by the extent to which the university questions received ideas. This includes ideas received by one’s peers. ‘Directed research’ (and all the emphasis on ‘teams’ etc. that Ferdinand likes to go one about) is just another name for groupthink. Yet rather than treating it as something to be avoided and that can befall well-meaning researchers, here we make it part of the ordinary functioning of research. That’s a complete abdication of the university’s function and mission, to my mind.

        Now, extra research funding beyond the tenured staff member’s salary (grants, equipment, etc.) is obviously something that has to be decided on and can’t just be doled out willy nilly. But the best way of doing this is peer review and I certainly don’t see what role professional administrators have in this either. And by ‘peer review’ I mean: review by experts in the applicants’ field. Too much of the nominal ‘peer review’ that goes on in Irish universities is carried out by ‘peers’ who generally know nothing about the fields in question.

        In most great American universities, for example, decisions about tenure and promotion are made exclusively by experts in the applicant’s chosen field. I’ve sat on promotions and tenure committees here where the panel of peers was made up of people from a wide range of disciplines and was assessing applicants from an even wider range of disciplines. Since nobody was competent even to read let alone judge more than a handful of applications, nobody really did read them (by which I mean: read the submitted work and not just the CVs). So we end up engaging in the most basic sort of bean-counting: this one has X number of publications whereas this other one has X-3. The whole system is absurd and I fear that, if Ferdinand’s remarks here are any indication, this dominion of the inexpert over the expert is going to become more widespread, not less.

        • iainmacl Says:

          Not sure what you mean by the bit about ‘that have served humanity well for over 500 years’. Why do people trot out all this stuff about an idealised university so often. For a start there are no Irish universities over 500 years old. Secondly and more substantively it’s not entirely clear that the medieval institutions you refer to actually did ‘serve humanity’. Didn’t they tend largely to produce clerics and then later administrators for empire and physicians? Certainly didn’t have research grants, let alone any with no strings attached. Colleges paid for by aristocrats and wealthy merchants whose scholars had to pray, sing and honour their memory daily.

          As for ‘academic freedom’, I’m not sure that saved many people from burning at the stake when they ventured to step out of the official line. So then, perhaps you mean the more modern models from Humboldt on, in which case, fine let’s discuss that, but even then of course much of higher education was highly exclusive from the bulk of humanity.

          Just stirring trouble of course, but tempting though it is I’ll not address your ‘inexpert’ evil and manipulative administrators description other than to comment that some of these are of course highly qualified, expert and indeed have come from academic backgrounds, but then that reality jars with your preferred stereotype doesn’t it?

          sorry, cheeky … 😉

        • Ernie Ball Says:


          Thank you for calling me out on the ‘500 years’ hyperbole. Yes, let’s limit it to the post-Humboldtian research university.

          It should have been obvious that I was talking about the worldwide institution of the university and do not believe that Ireland is somehow so special as to be in need of some different sort of university.

          As for your claim about administrators, I must insist: Some of them may be expert in this or that. None of them have the competence to be ‘directing’ the research of people working outside of the area in which the administrator–by chance–happens to have expertise. And even for those who have expertise in a domain: if they’re so expert at it, why are they doing university administration? That sounds glib but it’s a serious point: if you’re spending your working day doing university administration, what makes you think you’re also able to be up to date in one (or more!) academic subjects? Oh, wait, how silly of me. I’ve forgotten that university administrators are the rarest sorts of Übermenschen and the new raison d’être of the Brave New Parochialversity.

        • John Says:

          I’m not involved in this process, so my question is motivated only by curiosity. In an ideal research funding regime, from your point of view, I think I’m right in saying it would be your peers who decided how to allocate the available funds. Who would decide what those available funds would be? Presumably non-peers i.e. people who didn’t fully understand the research area.

        • Ernie, I suppose I would just ask one thing: don’t assume I am saying something I haven’t said, and do assume I am saying something I *have* said.

          You write: ‘There are a number of very good reasons not to allow administrators to have any say whatever about what research is conducted by tenured members of staff.’ – Actually, I’d go further: there are good reasons not to allow *anyone* to do that. Nobody but the academic should have a say in that question, subject to them receiving as appropriate (voluntary) advice.

          You also say: ‘But the best way of doing this is peer review’. I say: mot at all, it’s not the best way: it’s the *only* way.

          At no point during my presidency in DCU has this been done any other way, nor would I have ever agreed to any other approach.

          However, what we have done is to organise a proper support framework for researchers. We have encouraged researchers, both individuals and teams. We have given them very strong support when subjected to external reviews, and where they have been successful we have put our hands in our pockets and added additional resources. We have ensured that their efforts are recognised and where possible rewarded. And we have never claimed that the credit belongs to anyone other than those who have done the research.

          We *have* gone out to find prospective funds and resources and partners for our researchers (whether they took them up was up to them). We have brought in expert peers to review proposals before they were submitted to give them greater chances of success.

          Our research office over the past few years has been led by Professor Eugene Kennedy, himself an extremely respect physicist academic and an MRIA, who is genuinely popular amongst DCU’s research community and who has encouraged and supported academics from all disciplines. And every researcher has also had access to me if I could be of help.

          No doubt we have also made mistakes, and probably have occasionally annoyed someone. But the caricature you draw is way off the mark.

        • PS. I do however stand by two things I have said repeatedly. First, the academic’s research effort is not just of interest to him/her – it is part of the university community’s overall interests and affects them all, whether in terms of reputation, or resourcing. You can overlook that to some extent if you are 400 years old and have $32 billion reserves – but not in our position (and by that I mean anyone in Ireland).

          Secondly, group work is important in an increasing number of research fields, not least because we now have to reach across the disciplines more and more. I’m not saying people should be forced to do that, but I do believe researchers need to be aware of the benefits of being part of larger groups (which they of course assemble themselves).

  9. Mark McLaughlin Says:

    It seems to me that Ireland’s obsession with league tables and building links with industry will hollow out the real quality and academic freedom of our universities. The same obsession is given in the drive for rationalisation of the university sector. This idea that somehow 3 universities would be better than 7, because they would have more scale, which underrates the valuable cultures of learning and competitiveness in many universities that would disappear in any mergers.

    We need to nurture diversity and collaboration, and create an Ireland-wide research ecosystem, not create a small number of bureaucratic institutions, too unwieldy to be efficient, that will never be the largest universities in the world anyway. We need institutions in our regions that give our population great undergraduate education. We then need those institutions to come together (at 3+/4th level) to form appropriate research groups, based around topics of interest to either themselves or the public or private sector. PRTLI are already doing this. Academics that find their own funding should be left alone provided they are doing quality work.

    The impression I get from Ferdinand in his articles is that he is firmly on the side of league tables, as the main determinant of quality, rationalisation, and making links with industry one of the main objectives of the university. Yet when anybody charges Ferdinand with holding any of these views, he seems to clarify his position and end up on the fence, mostly agreeing with his accusers. Can the real Ferdinand von Prondzynski please stand up!

    • Oh for heaven’s sake, Mark, no sane individual believes league tables ‘determine quality’, and I have been most explicit on this blog what my views are on rationalisation. Industry links *are* important, and need to be carefully managed.

  10. John Says:

    How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Two. One to find someone who knows how to do it, and one to publish the results.

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