Modelling Research Careers: early thoughts

As some of you know already, because I keep going on about it, or worse, trying to drag you into it, I’m hoping to kick off a major project on simulating the research career structure and its effect on scientific productivity.  Having done my time as a postdoc, like many of us, I’m pretty convinced that the current pyramid-scheme structure of academia is not only sub-optimal, but fundamentally damaging, particularly toward academics from marginalised groups.

My first attempt at building an early-stage model of research careers is taking inspiration from Geard and Noble’s paper on Modelling Academic Research Funding as a Resource Allocation Problem.  In this paper the authors construct an agent-based model in which simulated academics attempt to obtain grant funding — frequently a prerequisite for any kind of decent job security these days — by devoting a certain portion of their time to writing proposals for competitive funding bids.  Agents have an underlying research productivity level which influences the perceived quality of their proposal when it comes under review.  At the review stage, top-ranked proposals are funded, and funding is then given to agents (which manifests as an increase in their research productivity).  Agents produce research outputs according to their productivity, whether or not they are holding a grant, and how much research time they have available (given that some period of time must be spent writing grant proposals).

In the end the paper demonstrates that the current system of grant funding is inefficient — huge amounts of time are spent on obtaining grants, which takes away from research productivity, and since most grant proposals are unsuccessful we end up with a lot of time wasted.

What I’m proposing at this stage is to modify this framework to include agents who are on fixed-term research contracts.  Now, presenting a simplified version of the post-doc experience would require a few changes:

  • Agents should be on fixed-term contracts — in the UK about 2/3 of all research-active academics are on FTCs, so the model should reflect this
  • Many postdocs are given much more time to devote to research in general, being largely free of time-consuming teaching or administrative duties
  • Postdocs need to spend significant time during the end of their contracts looking for a new job
  • New postdocs may lose some productive time due to needing to acclimatize to their new working environment
  • Postdocs are often tied to specific projects, and their contracts live and die as the project does

At the moment I’m envisioning a version of the model where we add significant new elements to try and work postdocs into this:

  • FTCs can vary in length from 2 to 10 semesters — as do projects
  • FTC agents don’t contribute to grant proposals, nor do they submit proposals for review (in reality some do contribute, but at least here in the UK postdocs are not considered proper academics by the Research Councils and thus cannot apply)
  • When the postdoc first starts work, 30% of their time is spent adjusting to the new environment, getting to know people and the work that needs doing
  • When the postdoc’s contract is due to end, again they lose 30% of their time due to job-hunting, interviews, and general stressing out
  • When grants are disbursed, the top 10 funded projects are allocated a postdoc with a contract length matching the grant length
  • Postdocs add their research productivity to the academic holding the grant
  • When a postdoc’s contract ends, at the end of the current semester they’re given a 10% chance of being made permanent — allowing them to then conduct their own research programmes, apply for grants and get their own postdocs
  • Postdocs who don’t get made permanent can transfer to another project if one gets funded and needs a postdoc.  If that doesn’t work they drop out of the research population

At the end of a run — say, 100 semesters like in the original model — I’d be looking at overall research productivity, research productivity in postdocs vs permanent faculty, the career history of the postdocs, and the distribution of grant income across the population.

What I’d expect to see is an elite set of agents who started collecting post-docs early, then snowballed their way into a series of successful grants and even more postdocs, while the rest of the population flounders, and is at a serious disadvantage compared to faculty members on the exploiting-the-postdocs train.  As for the postdocs, only a tiny number would be made permanent and thus benefit from their efforts, while a large number would end up on multiple FTCs or dropping out of the population altogether.  All of this would be broadly reflective of reality.  If that were to happen then perhaps this model could provide a good platform for investigating alternative methods of organising research careers, and for examining how different funding disbursement methods affect the fate of postdocs.

What I’m hoping to get out of this in the main is a model which demonstrates the interplay between precarious employment in academia and our current competitive methods of disbursing funding.  Modelling research as a resource allocation problem fits this well, I think, because postdocs are placed under particular pressure to find their next posts in a limited time while being expected to produce substantial research output.

Now as I write this I’m very aware there’s a lot of things at play here and this model is already in danger of being over-complicated.  Even still there’s a number of other factors I’d like to try to address at some later stage, most particularly the impact of stress on research output (from failing to get a grant, worrying about job security, etc.) but let’s just see if this works at all first!

But first: please do chime in if you can and let me know what you think, where I’ve gone wrong, etc.

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