Fellowships and Buy-Outs

I’ve always been a little worried about writing about Fellowships and buy-outs, partly because I don’t really have strong views about them (or rather I’m not really sure what I think) and partly because it may seem like sour grapes (which may indeed be somewhat true). This may end up seeming a little incoherent, but here we go anyway. When I first started working at a UK university there were postdoctoral-like Fellowships for researchers who didn’t have permanent jobs and a few Senior Fellowships that would allow academic staff to buy themselves out of teaching for a few years. Even back then I was concerned that Fellowships played too big a role in hiring practices. If two people were competing for a job, one with a Fellowship and one without, the one with the Fellowship might get the job because the University wouldn’t have to pay them directly for a few years. In fairness, having a Fellowship could also indicate research leadership and independence and so one might expect Fellowship holders to be more competitive in the job market.

Today, however, there seem to be more ways that academic staff can effectively pay themselves to focus mainly on research. There are European Research Council (ERC) Starting and Advanced grants that pay for a group of researchers plus the salary of the PI. I believe EPSRC has various Fellowships for academic staff and most UK Research grants now pay Full Economic Costing (fEC) which includes a portion of the PI and Co-I’s salaries. If a strong enough case is made, it could pay a significant fraction of someone’s salary. It seems – to me at least – that today a bigger fraction of academic staff are effectively bought out of teaching, than was the case 10 years ago.

Many people seem to think that this is all a good thing, but I’m not so sure. I would (and have done in the past) apply for such Fellowships and wouldn’t turn down the chance to buy myself out of some teaching and admin, but I’m still not convinced that it’s all good. Firstly, I took an academic job expecting to teach, do some administration and do research. It now seems, to a certain extent at least, that research is valued above all else and hence those who buy themselves out of teaching and admin are somehow “better” than those who don’t have buy-outs. I should add, however, that most of the people I know who have buy-outs do contribute something to admin and teaching, so my issue isn’t with the individuals, who often do more than is required. My issue is with the system that seems to value these buy-outs more highly than it values the contribution others do through teaching and administration. In some sense it seems odd to me that we have a system in which we’re hired to do a certain job (teaching, administration and research) and are then encouraged to find a way to avoid doing a big chunk of what you were hired to do.

There are other issues too. It feels a little like it can distort the system. Someone who has been bought out for a number of years will typically look stronger when it comes to promotion than someone who hasn’t. It seems obvious that the system should take into account how much teaching, administration and research someone has done when determining their contribution to the running of an academic department. It’s not obvious – to me at least – that it does. The perception is that research plays such a big role that those who’ve been bought out, and hence have been able to focus primarily on research, are more highly valued than those who haven’t.

Also, what do you do if a reasonable fraction of the academic staff are bought out? Typically, they do some teaching and/or have an administrative role, so it’s not quite as bad as it could be, but there will still be some requirement to take over the jobs that they would have done had they not been bought out. Either others have to pick up the slack or new staff need to be hired. This can introduce a level of risk. If you hire new staff you have to hope that you can maintain a reasonably constant buy-out rate. If not, you could suddenly have an increased salary cost when staff come off their buy-outs. As it is, the level of salary fEC on UK research grants has been dropping and there is currently a petition to secure the EU research budget and, presumably, protect the ERC budget. This presumably means that the number of available Fellowships may drop in the future. There therefore seems to be a reasonable chance that we won’t be able to maintain the current buy-out rate and, hence, there may well be people whose jobs will be at risk in the future. Who are these likely to be? I would guess, not those who have been bought out in the past.

In general, I don’t think it’s all bad. The idea that an academic could spend a few years focusing on research does seem good and I, personally, would be quite keen to do that. I think my main issue is whether or not the level is optimal. Are too many bought out and is it skewing the system in their favour? Can we maintain this? It seems to have increased quite dramatically and could, in principle, drop just as fast. Has it allowed us to take risks that will suddenly come back to bite us in a few years time. We also, in the past, had world-class research universities without needing a significant fraction to be bought out from teaching and administration. They coped fine back then, surely we can do the same now. Also, what do students think if they come to what they think is a world-class research university and then barely have any contact with the research leaders because they’re all bought out. This may all seem as though I’m against this, but I’m actually not really sure and I am pushing the implications to the extreme. I could probably be persuaded that actually everything is fine and that this is a really a good system that provides strength and depth in research and that it can be done without negatively impacting the other activities that need to take place in a World-class research university. If you have any thoughts, feel free to make a comment.

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