Category Archives: Policy

Postdoc simulation analysis (spoiler alert: job insecurity is bad)

Once again I’ve been working with the academic job security simulation again.  Yesterday I’d finished altering the research funding model so that our poor agents no longer lived in a world of government largesse where population increases are always matched by an increase in funding to keep grant acceptance rates at 30%.

After tweaking things a lot last night and earlier today, I found that a funding level set at an initial 30% with a 2% increase per timestep led to research output levels very close to the previous version of the model.  The proportion of grants funded slowly drops over the course of 100 timesteps, heading from that starting 30% down to about 17% at the end of an average run.

I also added a simple retirement mechanism to this version: after 40 semesters, agents start to think about retirement and have a fixed chance (20% at the moment) of leaving the sector forever.  The result of this is a significant rise in the return-on-investment measure as the senior academics start to leave the sector; seems we had a lot of senior academics coasting along without producing much in the way of research!  Compared to the previous version, the older academics produce significantly less research-wise — I’m presuming this is because the rich-get-richer aspect of the increasingly competitive funding environment leads to a larger proportion of failed applicants deciding to bow out of the rat-race altogether.

Having taken a brief look at all this I decided to test the feedback given to me at Alife XV.  In the initial simulation, promotions had a huge positive impact on research output regardless of whether they were made entirely at random or based on research quality.  Several people at the conference suggested that this may no longer be the case if I implemented a more constrained funding system.

So, I ran the simulation 800 times across a range of parameter values with limited funding and retirement mechanisms both turned on.  I then used my old pal, the software called Gaussian Emulation Machine for Sensitivity Analysis (GEM-SA), to crunch the numbers and come up with a statistical model of the agent-based model, and then ran that 41,000 times.  The final output of interest is the total research produced across the agent population at the end of the simulation.  The analysis looks like this:


Turns out my colleagues were onto something, which I expected (and hoped for, because otherwise that might mean the simulation might have some problems).  In this version of the sim altering the chances of promotion for postdocs does little on its own, accounting for only 0.11% of the output variance.  This factor interacts with the level of stress induced by impending redundancy, however, and this interaction accounts for 11.03% of the output variance.

The largest effect here is driven by Mentoring levels — the amount of research boost given to newly-promoted postdocs.  Second-largest is the stress caused by looming redundancies.  This is a significantly different result from the previous version of the simulation — I’ll run a parameter sweep of promotion levels later as well, to get the complete picture.

For the sake of completeness, here’s the graph of the main effects produced by GEM-SA:


Tomorrow I’m hoping to do a similar analysis, but this time leaving Mentoring at a lower, constant level and varying a slightly different set of parameters.  My poor laptop needs a break for a little while, it’s pumping out crazy amounts of heat after all this number-crunching.

My other, larger task is to come up with a way to measure the overall human cost of this funding/career structure.  I think I can make a good case at this point that job insecurity is not great for research output in the simulation, given that across many thousands of runs I’ve yet to find a single one in which insecure employment produces more research for the money than permanent academic jobs.  I’d to be able to compare scenarios in terms of human cost as well, so perhaps taking a look at total redundancies after 100 semesters as the final output for some analyses might give me some ideas.

That aside I think I’ve made a decent start on an extension of the conference paper.  Thanks to all those who came to the talk in Mexico and gave me some useful feedback!


Tagged , , , ,

Returning to the postdoc simulation

I’ve been doing some tests on my postdoc simulation today. As suggested by colleagues at Alife XV I’ve implemented a funding system in which the total available funding increases at a lower rate than the population, leading to increased competition.

Total research output under these conditions does increase pretty significantly — however, return-on-investment remains negative, meaning we still would get more for our money by hiring half as many permanent researchers instead of postdocs. Postdocs are still the group producing the lion’s share of the actual scientific work, while permanent academics nearly all of their research time to grant-writing.
The return-on-investment is less negative than under the previous funding condition, but bear in mind the simulation currently doesn’t account for redundancy payments or training costs for new postdocs.  In these runs results were showing a return of -2.5 papers per unit of funding invested as compared to a postdoc-free scenario; in the unlimited-funding condition with the same settings, the figure averaged -3.6/unit.  Redundancies were higher in this condition, about 150 more each run than in the unlimited funding condition.  This could change significantly, however, depending on the final formula I use for year-on-year research budget increases, given that postdocs’ fates are directly tied to how much research money is available.
The big question is whether under this condition we still see no improvement in research output or return-on-investment when candidates for promotion to permanency are selected by quality rather than randomly. At this early stage there’s little difference — I’ve only done a few runs, but non-random promotions have not demonstrated a significant difference from random ones in either total output or ROI.  We’ll see if that changes when I do a larger sequence of runs.

My next test after that will be to try this version of the simulation with much longer runs to see if things stabilise at all, or whether the uncertainty introduced by the high-turnover postdoc population continues to drown out any attempts at rewarding high achievers with more grants.  We’re already looking at 50-year runs here, though, so if after two centures of terrible job security we see hugely better cost efficiencies I’m still not sure that’s a massive win for the postdoc side of things.  But I suppose that rests on whether you care about the human costs or not.

There’s a lot of tweaking to be done so these are very early days, but it’s an interesting first result.
Tagged , , , ,

Funded PhD opportunity at Teesside

Fully-funded PhD opportunity available! I’m looking for someone interested in working on agent-based modelling for healthcare applications. No fees and £20K stipend. These are four-year positions and you will be asked to contribute up to six hours per week of teaching (tutorials/demonstration only, no lectures), which is more work but also good for the CV. Click here and filter under ‘Computer Science’ to see my project.  For more about me, check out the various pages on this blog or my staff profile at Teesside.

Project description: This research will focus on the application of Agent-Based Modelling techniques to human social systems, with particular emphasis on digital health applications. In the context of public health, agent-based models can help us understand the complexities of health policy implementation and service delivery by modelling the multiple interacting processes underlying the health system. These models will investigate challenges in health and social care service delivery across a variety of spatial and temporal scales – from short-term studies of demands on accident and emergency services, to longer-term explorations of the pressures facing social care over the next several decades. Our multi-disciplinary team will work with members of the School of Health and Social Care here at Teesside, along with external collaborators and stakeholders. The project would be suitable for a graduate with a background in Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Statistics or Complexity Science with an interest in Public Health/Healthcare applications.

ACADEMIC FRIENDS: Please tweet/share this as widely as you can!

Tagged , , , ,

York Inequality Workshop, Part II

In my last post I summarised the morning session of the York inequality workshop I attended last week.  Today I’ll cover the main event of the day, the plenary session by Kate Pickett and Danny Dorling.

Kate is well known as one of the co-authors of The Spirit Level, a book about the many and varied impacts of inequality in society that received major publicity a few years ago.  Danny Dorling has written several books on the topic, including Inequality and the 1% and Unequal Health: The Scandal of Our Times.  They delivered the talk jointly, framing it as somewhat of a contrast — with Danny offering a fairly sobering perspective on inequality, followed by Kate with a slightly more optimistic picture.

Inequality in the UK

Danny opened by showing us some graphs which showed a worrying trend.  The National Health Service here in the UK tracks a statistic on its success in reducing premature death from preventable causes — it’s referred to as statistic 1A, perhaps the single most important indicator of the health service’s performance.  The graph showed that in recent years, progress has stalled on this all-important indicator.  This has coincided with a general rise in health inequality in the UK and ever-increasing economic inequality.

In terms of the broader picture, the UK is at the bottom of the league tables in terms of equality in Europe.  Infant mortality is among the highest in Europe — our figures are closer to Europe than to Sweden.  Our income inequality is the highest in Europe, with the best-off 10% of the population taking home 28% of the country’s income.

Danny argued that research shows income inequality has a disastrous effect on everyday life and culture in highly unequal countries.  People in unequal countries tend to trust each other less, and tend to think of other people as less deserving of help.  Social classes become stratified, and culture begins to separate along economic lines.  Health inequality gets more severe as economic inequality grows — and that leads to disturbing outcomes.  For example, here in the UK two times more children die each year than in Sweden, a country with much greater equality.

Do we care enough?

By way of demonstration, Danny presented us with a number of comments from GPs on a story about the growing number of requests from patients for referrals to food banks.  In comment after comment, GPs offered comments that were shockingly unconcerned about the fact that their patients found themselves unable to put food on the table.  These patients were described as irresponsible, their problems seen as medically irrelevant or simply not the GP’s responsibility — despite the very clear and obvious link between poverty and poor health.

Danny presented these as evidence that even amongst members of our society trained specifically to look after others, the predominant view in recent years is that there are a substantial portion of people who do not deserve our help.  We are inclined to see people around us as irresponsible or lazy, rather than victims of circumstance, even despite the evidence that the vast majority of people in poverty spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to escape it.

He argued that this predominant mindset leads to a culture in which we simply don’t care enough about the circumstances of others, and as a consequence we don’t act to prevent unnecessary death and misery in our society.  He pointed to figures showing the link between economic inequality and traffic deaths — two times more children die crossing the street than in more equal societies like France, the Netherlands or Norway.  Deaths due to suicide or drug poisoning are also far higher in the UK.  Overall we have a much higher incidence of mental illness in the UK than in Europe, second only to the US.

The political view

Danny closed by discussing how these damaging views on equality in our society are promoted and perpetuated by those in power.  Statistics show that the UK spends less on a per-capita basis for healthcare than any comparable country — in some cases drastically less (on the order of 28-40% lower than most countries in Europe, and half or less the spend of some countries like Denmark).  The fact that the NHS is able to demonstrate as many good health outcomes as it does is remarkable, given how little we spend compared to our neighbours.

When we zoom out and look at state spending in the UK as a whole, the trend continues.  The current Conservative government is presiding over a drastic shrinking of the state, to a level not seen since 1918.  Children in private education have 4.5 times more money spent on them than state schoolkids.  Once again when we compare state spending on health and welfare in the UK as a proportion of the overall budget, we are way down at the bottom of the league table.

Yet despite all this, the current government continues to paint a picture of the UK as a country where state spending is out of control.  George Osborne tells us that we’re a reckless tax-and-spend country, painting a dire picture of overspending leading to a precarious economy that could collapse at any moment (despite so many experts disagreeing with both his assessment and his predictions of the consequences of the sovereign debt).

So, Danny asks, does Osborne and the rest of the government actually believe this?  Are they so steeped in this economic view that they fail to see the myriad statistics that show the opposite?  How do they fail to see that these merciless budget cuts, so often levelled at the poor, the sick, and the disabled, push us further down the road toward deep inequality that will damage our health and further divide our society?

Kate’s response — Is it as bad as all that?

After Danny’s presentation the mood in the room was understandably severe.  He painted a picture of severe and growing inequality in the UK, and a government that appears totally uninterested in addressing it.  With our own views seeming fundamentally warped by inequality, is it even possible that we can get things back on track?

Kate started off by saying that she was going to try to offer a more optimistic picture than Danny — but that in fact everything he said was right and she didn’t disagree fundamentally with any of it.

She started off by highlighting the issue of wealth inequality, which has been a topic of much greater interest in recent years due to movements such as Occupy Wall Street.  She showed some graphs confirming the stratospheric rise in the share of wealth going to the top 1% of society in the US and UK since 1980 — a direct consequence of the policies of the Reagan/Thatcher era.  Post-1985 we’ve also seen a massive rise in pay for CEOs relative to their employees — we’re now at a point where CEOs tend to make 300-400 times what their average employee makes.  The UK historically was much less bad than the US on this measure, but in recent years has caught up.

Rising awareness of inequality

Kate said that one positive aspect of this is that most of these facts and figures are by now quite familiar to many of us — in no small part due to the efforts of Occupy Wall Street and similar movements.  She argued that wealth inequality has become part of the conversation now, after the economic crisis.  She gave several examples of how wealth inequality is now a target for major charities, including Oxfam.

She pointed to a particular campaign from Oxfam which offered the statistic that the world’s richest 85 people hold the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.  As it turns out, they got the figures wrong and had to present a correction — in fact, the richest 83 people hold the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.

As it happens, Oxfam has updated those numbers just a few hours ago — and things have become even worse.  Now the top 62 wealthiest people hold the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people on Earth — the bottom 50%.

As far as the UK is concerned, Kate discussed the case of the Sustainable Development Goals panel at the United Nations.  This panel, of which the Prime Minister David Cameron was a member, was tasked with producing a series of key goals for all countries leading up to the year 2030.  Kate in her capacity as equality campaigner and co-founder of The Equality Trust wrote to all the world leaders on this panel to urge them to include reducing inequality as one of the development goals.  She received a positive response from every leader on the panel (including President Barack Obama) — except for David Cameron.  He delegated his response to one of his cabinet ministers, who told her that inequality is not a policy priority in the UK.

Fortunately the other world leaders overruled Cameron’s objections, and the Sustainable Development Goals explicitly include reducing inequality (see #10).  This whole scenario very much backs up Danny Dorling’s assertions about the UK government’s views on inequality — they seem more than happy to ignore the evidence of the impact of inequality and continue their efforts to widen these gaps in society.

Can we reduce the impact of inequality and greed?

As a way of offering a more positive perspective, Kate discussed an interesting study about the behaviour of wealthy people.  She highlighted the work of Paul K Piff, a social psychologist who studies the behaviour of the wealthy.  He found that higher social class is a strong predictor of unethical behaviour — in laboratory studies wealthy people are more likely than poorer people to break the law while driving, steal valuable items from others, lie during negotiations, and so on (see the 2012 PNAS paper).  One of his studies actually, seriously involved taking candy from children — and yes, the wealthy subjects were far more likely to do it.

Follow-up studies have shown something interesting, however — when the wealthy subjects are asked to ponder some facts and statistics regarding inequality before engaging in these tests, their behaviour becomes markedly more moderated.  They become less likely to make unethical decisions once they’re asked to keep those ideas in mind.

So, in Kate’s view, this means that there’s a real, demonstrable impact from spreading the word about the problems caused by inequality, and from making these ideas part of the public debate.  The more people ponder these ideas, the more they may moderate their own behaviour — and perhaps become motivated to start their own efforts to address the problem.  She noted the recent spread of Fairness Commissions in local authorities throughout the UK, and suggested that these are a consequence of far greater numbers of people contemplating inequality and wanting to take direct action to address it locally.

Conclusions and thoughts

As is often the case with these kinds of presentations, I came away from the session feeling rather overwhelmed, exhausted and depressed — despite already knowing most of these figures.  There’s something about being shown the whole grim picture at once that makes it feel like a real gut-punch of hopelessness and despair.  All I could think was how powerless we all seem to be to stop the endless march toward inequality and division, how the entire power structure of the world seems oriented toward consolidating wealth and power at the very top of society while the rest of us are left with poverty and desperation.

In that respect I appreciated Kate’s perspective — she did offer some hope by presenting a possible future in which keeping inequality in the public conversation leads to changes in our behaviour, which eventually will be reflected in the structure of our societies.  She showed us that world leaders — well, except for David Cameron — do consider inequality a problem at least on some level, and are willing to commit to addressing it in the coming years.

However, I do feel that us academics need to do more here.  While I was comforted somewhat by what Kate had to say, I don’t think things are moving in the correct direction at all currently — as evidenced by the updated Oxfam report above.  On top of that, for every year these trends toward inequality continue, many many thousands more people across the world will die unnecessarily due to preventable causes, many of them attributable to inequality.  While it seems true that our community’s efforts to raise the profile of these issues are bearing fruit, we can’t hope to make a dent in these things by offering the occasional nugget of info every so often.  We should be taking sustained, concerted action.

That’s my view, anyway — and as anyone who knows me can testify, I’m always of the opinion that academics shouldn’t be afraid to step out of the ivory tower and cause a ruckus when we have something important to say.  In my mind, these studies of inequality are exactly that sort of thing — by pushing for action on these issues, which our community has studied a great deal, we can make a huge difference, even save many lives.  So we should follow up on this great work and keep up the pressure.


Tagged , , , ,

York Workshop on Inequality

Yesterday I attended an event titled Have We Become Acclimatised to Greater Inequality?, an all-day workshop at the National Science Learning Centre at the University of York (programme).  The previous event in this same series focused primarily on health inequality — this event extended the scope of the discussion to take a look at inequality more generally, including economic and social inequality.

Policy Ignorance and the Low-Pay, No-Pay Cycle

The first session in the morning was split into two workshops — I attended the workshop run by Robert MacDonald, a fellow Teesside University academic.  Robert’s work focuses on youth unemployment and social exclusion in the Tees Valley area of the UK, an area frequently ranked amongst the most deprived in Britain.  As Robert pointed out, however, as recently as the 1970s the Tees Valley was one of the most economically vibrant parts of the country.  So what happened to cause this drastic decline in the area’s fortunes?

The government would have you believe that the deprivation and unemployment in the region is a consequence of a ‘culture of worklessness’ — a pathological lack of ambition, a disdain for hard work derived from families that supposedly lead a life of leisure, sitting around the house while claiming government benefits and refusing to work on gaining new skills to increase their employability.  Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron, and others have made this argument, setting up an alleged conflict between ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ — those who want ‘to get on’, versus those who prefer a life on benefits.

This is the government orthodoxy regarding unemployment, and has led to a policy programme which focuses on ‘up-skilling’ the workforce, increasing benefit conditionality (making it harder to claim benefits), and increasing the number of highly-skilled jobs while reducing the lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs.  Robert confidently called this ‘Voodoo Sociology’, and set out to explain why such a programme ignores the real reasons behind the deprivation and unemployment evident in areas like the Tees Valley.

Youth in the Tees Valley — Underambitious or Underemployed?

Robert and his colleagues have followed youth in the Tees Valley in a series of studies since 1998, called the Teesside Studies of Youth Transitions and Social Exclusion.  These studies found that, in contrast to the rhetoric of central government, the youth in the area have a constant engagement with the labour market — there is no such thing as a ‘culture of worklessness’.  Long-term, post-school transitions for Tees Valley youth are characterised by short-term, insecure jobs that are non-progressive — they don’t lead to further opportunities, promotion, etc.

So we do not see the kind of idle underclass proposed by the government, but instead a constant ‘churning’ of young people through the lowest end of the labour market.  Young people are continuously attempting to enter the labour market, only to be dumped after a few weeks or months and forced to claim Job-Seeker’s Allowance once again.  The DWP’s own studies confirm that of the 340,000 young people aged 22-24 who claimed JSA in 2010-11, 73% had claimed JSA at least once before.  Robert referred to this precarious labour market position as economic marginality — young people in the Tees Valley are perpetually stuck on the fringes of the labour market, with no clear path to regular employment or job security.

The Perils of Voodoo Sociology

Having set out these points, Robert returned to the government’s ‘Voodoo Sociology’.  The government policy goals around vastly increasing the supply of skilled workers, fuelled by a significant expansion of the higher education sector, has been done largely in isolation: there has been no corresponding increase in demand from employers for highly-skilled workers.  The trend we see of late is an increase in ‘lousy jobs’ — low-paid, low- or no-skilled, and insecure — and ‘lovely jobs’ — very highly-paid, highly skilled, and secure.  The middle ground has been ‘hollowed out’, leaving a significant percentage of university graduates with nowhere to go.  In areas like the Tees Valley this endemic underemployment is a serious issue, leaving some 34% of graduates in non-graduate-level jobs, even 5+ years after graduation.  Plus, thanks to recent government policy, these same graduates will soon be saddled with enormous educational debt as well.

Robert also spoke briefly about Prof Ken Roberts — a well-known academic in this area and author of several books on the topic, such as Youth in Transition: Eastern Europe and the West.  His work has confirmed across 25 countries that youth suffer no shortage of ambition, even in the most deprived areas.  In fact, youth repeatedly and doggedly attempt to engage in productive work, but the severe shortage of secure, progressive jobs for young people makes this a struggle.  Youth are seeking out the opportunities that are available to them — but the structure of these opportunities themselves are not conducive to getting young people out of poverty.

The Government’s Approach

Given all of this hard data, what response have we seen from the government?  Well, aside from a partial U-turn on tax credit cuts, an anaemic Living Wage policy, and some lip-service given to ‘making work pay’, not an awful lot.  We don’t see any concerted effort toward reducing the number of bad jobs out there, or restructuring the poor opportunities available to younger people.  Nor have we seen any support forthcoming for short-term underemployed people, or recurrently underemployed/unemployed youth.

Instead we have institutions like the Work Programme from the DWP, which with a success rate of 8% is actually worse than doing nothing at all (more than 8% of people find jobs by themselves, without taking assistance from the Work Programme).  Apprenticeship schemes only accept one of every 28 applicants, making them a very unlikely means of finding a new trade. Here in the Tees Valley, a new project costing £30 million (funded by the EU, as are many things around here — take note, UKIP) is aiming to address ‘social exclusion’ by making young people ‘more work ready’ and ‘raising their aspirations’.   So we see the exact same rhetoric — young people are to blame, their aspirations are too low, too many of them are long-term ‘NEET’ (not in employment, education or training).  When we look at the figures, less than 50 people in the entire region could be classed as actually long-term NEET — the overwhelming majority are constantly attempting to engage with a labour market that seemingly wants nothing to do with them.

So, having established that government policy on this issue is getting things disastrously wrong, and that young people are not in fact to blame for their own misfortune, why does the government persist in this approach?  Robert suggests that this ideology of the ‘undeserving unemployed’ provides an easy platform for the government to justify cuts to the welfare budget and sweeping austerity programmes.  Rolling out welfare-to-work programmes like the Work Programme is much easier than actually restructuring the labour market to create proper opportunities for youth — and large companies love these programmes, as they often end up getting free short-term labour out of it with no particular commitment to taking anyone on.  With that in mind Robert left us with a question at the end of his slides: as a society we speak often about young people’s aspirations and their supposed lack of same, but what about our aspirations?  Do we aspire to create a society in which our youth can find productive, secure employment, and if so, why aren’t we properly doing anything about it?

Summing Up

I very much enjoyed Robert’s presentation.  I found it revealing and very important — I just wish central government would give this kind of work the attention and respect it deserves.  I hope that I might be able to contribute to this kind of work sometime in the future, perhaps by developing simulations as testing grounds for testing the effects of relevant labour market reforms.

I was hoping to summarise the whole day in this post, but this has gone on long enough already — I’ll save the rest for another post.  I’ll spoil it for you now though and say I did enjoy the rest of the day as well.

Although, if I may offer some feedback for the organisers: as someone with a physical health problem which prohibits me from standing for long periods without extreme discomfort, please don’t hold lunch/networking sessions without any seating.  While everyone else was networking and chatting amiably, I ended up sitting in another room by myself, and that wasn’t overly pleasant.

Tagged , , ,