Is competition the answer?

Academia has always been pretty competitive. It took me about 2 years of looking to get a job as a academic, including a somewhat bruising  and unsuccessful interview at Imperial (the question “Do you consider yourself a loner?” did rather throw me). And if anything 2 years is shorter than average. If you apply for a job as an academic you should accept that maybe 30 to 100 others will be applying for the same job, including some smart, hard working and ambitious people. But despite the pressure and work load, being an academic is still a good job, with a lot more freedom than most other jobs. And, as I tell my tutees “Good jobs are hard to get as the competition is strong, so you need to work on getting a good CV”, so you should expect getting a job as an academic to be competitive.

Once you have got the job as academic, you are expected to write grant proposals, and getting grant proposals is also highly competitive. But again, competition is pretty reasonable. About half the grant proposals that I get to review I think are not worth spending taxpayers’ money on. There should be competition to ensure, as far as is possible, that taxpayers’ money is spent on good stuff. I pay taxes, so it is my money too.

But there is a feeling amongst some of us academics, that competition is getting out of hand. Huge amounts of time and energy are going into competing for grants that could be more profitably spent educating students and doing research. And this a bit of a vicious spiral, the more time people put into writing the grant applications, the more are submitted and as the funds, are fixed, the smaller is the fraction actually funded. Then more people are empty handed, so try again and write yet another proposal. Over the next few months I should finish off a proposal of my own, and help two others submit fellowship applications. As the odds of success of any of these succeeding are at best 1 in 5, the odds of all three succeeding are less than 1%. These are not good odds.

And the situation is even worse in biomedical science. Good biomedical science is hugely time intensive, growing cells and doing careful reproducible experiments on them is hard work, which requires hours in the lab. For example, just keeping some stem cells alive requires feeding them every day (N.B. If you are thinking of doing a biomedical PhD and like having Christmas Day off, you can take this as a warning). So biomedical academics are incentivised to do what it takes to fund a small army of PhD students and postdocs, and then to crack the whip 24/7.

This is problematic. A PhD student joining a research group needs educating and mentoring, and time to learn in a supportive atmosphere. Putting a lot of pressure on their supervising academic to get results out of them ASAP for a grant proposal is not ideal. Education is a fundamentally collaborative not competitive activity – you do not compete with someone you are teaching, you work with them.

I think we have reached the point where competition is sufficiently dominant that it is hurting the quality of education that universities are providing. This competition is not all bad, it is making universities pump out results faster than they would otherwise, but if you think education is more important than this year’s research results, then maybe you should agree with me that competition has reached damaging levels.

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