The tension between why we do research and how universities compete

When I talk to researchers about why they do research, it is pretty clear that most researchers are intent on making the world a better place. We see that there is a change that is needed or a question that can/should be answered and we go for it. But researchers are a diverse bunch and we come from a huge variety of different disciplines and disciplinary traditions, so we all think about this in different ways, or sometimes we don’t think about it all, until someone asks us.

Aside from the researchers who are in it for money and glory (and there are very few of those in my experience) most researchers are driven by either curiosity or social conscience, and often a mixture of both. For these researchers, the internal drivers to satisfy their curiosity, and/or to have a positive impact on society through their research can quickly clash with the expectations of a university that is driven to seek rankings and money. Mostly the rankings that universities look for are the ones that indicate research performance. And this means that there is an expectation that research staff will be prolific in producing papers that are published in highly ranked journals. For universities, one way that money is gained is through research grants, this means that researchers are also expected to spend significant amounts of time writing grant proposals to all manner of funding bodies.

The reason that researchers do research is to make the world a better place. But in order to do the research (i.e. keep our jobs) we spend a lot of time writing journal papers that we feel won’t be read, and writing research grant applications that have low chances of being funded. Effectively this means that there are a lot of researchers ‘playing the game’ when their heart really isn’t in it. We are writing journal papers when we would rather be working with community groups. Or we are writing grant applications that may as well be lottery tickets – an idea taken to its logical conclusion by the New Zealand Health Research Council who run a grants lottery for eligible research (see below).

With a push along from the government, universities and funding bodies are now looking for researchers to show engagement and impact. It feels like this should be a good thing, we are being told that university research should change the world, and that we should be curious, and that we should be working with groups outside of academia. And, if those groups can pay, this can be a winner – for example industry comes to you with a problem, pays you to do the research and uses your research at the end. They might even be happy for you to publish the research.

If those groups can’t pay, then engagement can feel like added pressure – the time that it takes to work with partner organisations, negotiating roles and outcomes and then applying jointly for grant funding, all happen before there is money available. This is where seed funding is incredibly helpful, it can get you started on working with partners -  but seed funding is usually granted on top of whatever job you are being paid to do already, and not many of us have the flexibility to rearrange our work to suit new opportunities.

It seems that we each have to negotiate the tension between doing research for a better world, and doing research that makes us/our university “competitive” in a global research market. In an ideal world, these two aims would coincide, and when they do we should cherish the moment.

More info on Research Grants by Lottery:

https://gateway.hrc.govt.nz/funding/researcher-initiated-proposals/2019-explorer-grants

http://mbio.asm.org/content/7/2/e00422-16.full#ref-64