Imagine a research department within a medical school within a UK university…

… aspiring to coveted ‘Top Ten’ status, and its new Vice Chancellor(seeing it as his)‘s remit being to push hard to get it up there. Because, the so-called ’Top’ institutions get more money from the government: money with which to dangle bait in front of revered academics, who come with their sure-fire grants, and thus bolster and maintain the University’s reputation and the associated Russell back-slapping kudos, and its consequent fee-paying student pulling power – and its employment of more spin doctors PR staff to continually remind the world how brilliant the University is. Reputation is all important.

So, in the wake of a recent six-figure re-branding exercise (which saw the jettison-ing of its locally well-loved logo – because it was deemed as potentially bracketing the university in with the post-‘92 red-bricks – and its replacement with one that features… the name of the University… in an austere font, so as to accord more with the image of the ’old’ universities with which it seeks to schmooze and compete), the University embarked on a process of substantial restructuring of its faculties and departments, and the repositioning and head-hunting of already established ‘reputable’ researchers.

This process even touched the already highly-regarded Medical School, wherein one of the (smaller) research divisions has been discontinued and amalgamated into another (larger) division, the head of which has just landed a large pot of money from a particular esteemed funding body. This HoD (no doubt under pressure from above to maintain this momentum) has been rallying the troops to foster a ruthless attitude towards collaboration: settle for nothing less than first or last authorship. All the better for realising the VC’s goal and the basking in his approving glow.

Carrot and stick, eh? – the former being the implied benefit to researchers’ careers. Well, what about these researchers? Imagine within this (new) structure a diligent senior postdoc – ‘A’. Employed by the University for well over a decade, ‘A’ has ‘produced’, ie published, including in ‘renowned’ journals, and continues to play the game. However, ‘A’, being dedicated to a research project that has effectively become ’A’’s own, has, due to cessation of supervisor grant funding, toiled on for the last approximately two years – as a ‘visiting scientist’. And, despite publishing again during this period, the University, although happy to pin these papers to its lapel, still rewards ‘A’ neither due respect nor position.

And then imagine another postdoc – ‘B’. Due to funding cessation-enforced redundancy two years ago, ‘B’ was forced to move and, joining the recently swallowed-up small division, accept a substantial drop in salary. Following piecemeal extensions and a cancelled grant round, a similar situation is re-approaching. An impending grant decision, if – if – successful, will not be in place until three months after expiration of ’B’’s current contract. Hence ‘B’ has been served a third redundancy notice this year. However, ‘B’ has also generated ‘product’ (thus rewarding the previous extension)… and it just so happens that the ensuing work assimilates seamlessly into the overall field of interest of the new, flushly-funded larger division, and forms the basis of another in-progress grant application. But without the impending grant in place, will the HoD or the Medical School cough up a paltry extra three months salary to provide for both uninterrupted research and continuance of service, and thus head off the possibility of losing ‘B’ for good? You guessed it. Yet further imagine that this Medical School continues to maintain a unit for research into Complementary and Alternative Medicine, employing homeopaths, herbalists and the like, and has them teach such stuff to its students.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise the doubtlessness of spare monies being readily found to cover the sweeteners relocation expenses of some sought after ‘star’, a luxury not usually afforded postdocs forced to relocate. Instead, ‘B’ has been compromised into the, at times humiliating, rigmarole that is the Human Resources redeployment process. Oh yes, HR. Those petty wielders of disproportionate and inappropriate managerial power. So, has ‘B’ been provided with information on relevant positions concomitant with qualification and expertise? No. Instead, those ever-efficient HR jobsworths, with their wonderful new software package, have notified this experienced, highly-competent laboratory scientist of the availability of positions for a ‘Teaching Fellow in Fine Art’, and a ‘Teaching Fellow in Fashion Marketing and Promotion’.

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

One might imagine such people giving two fingers and walking. But the thing about research is that the researcher at the white coal face does come to feel that that hard sought data is theirs as much as, if not more than, anybody’s. Having put so much in, it is so hard to let go. (Especially if they’ve put down roots.) But this renders them more prone to abuse by cosily-Chaired senior faculty who have them over a barrel, and to patronisation by HR compensatory offerings of useless, box-ticking ‘Career and Personal Development’ courses and appraisals and suchlike. Imagine spending some of that wasted money in returning serious support to dedicated but vulnerable postdocs.


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