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The rise of project funding and its effects on the social structure of academia

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The rise of project funding and its effects on the social structure of
academia
Abstract
In this chapter we analyzed the effects of the rise of project funding on the social structure of
academia. We show that more temporary positions are created and the temporary phase in the
career is extended. Short-term contracts increase job and grant market participation of early career
researchers which in turn establishes competition as a mode of governance, reaffirms the
individual as the primary epistemic subject and increases anxiety and career uncertainty. All of
which impacts the social fabric of research groups and departments. Communitarian ideals are
promoted by senior staff members, which is necessary to establish the research group as a
community, but cannot solve the inherent tension because of the structural nature of the
mechanisms we describe. We conclude that individual research groups will be unlikely to be able
to solve these problems and a more radical shift in the distribution of research funding is
necessary.
Franssen, T. & De Rijcke, S. (2019) “The rise of project funding and its effects on the social
structure of academia”. In: Cannizzo, F & Osbaldiston, N. (Eds) The social structures of global
academia. London: Routledge
The rise of project funding and its effects on the social structure of
academia
Abstract
In this chapter we analyzed the effects of the rise of project funding on the social structure of
academia. We show that more temporary positions are created and the temporary phase in the
career is extended. Short-term contracts increase job and grant market participation of early career
researchers which in turn establishes competition as a mode of governance, reaffirms the
individual as the primary epistemic subject and increases anxiety and career uncertainty. All of
which impacts the social fabric of research groups and departments. Communitarian ideals are
promoted by senior staff members, which is necessary to establish the research group as a
community, but cannot solve the inherent tension because of the structural nature of the
mechanisms we describe. We conclude that individual research groups will be unlikely to be able
to solve these problems and a more radical shift in the distribution of research funding is
necessary.
Introduction
The distribution of funding for scientific research has changed over the past decades due to an
increasing governmental involvement in the governance of research and innovation (Glaser &
Laudel, 2016). This has resulted in the introduction of performance-based and competitive project
funding mechanisms (Auranen & Nieminen, 2010) and had a differentiating effect on the
distribution of research funding across universities, departments and individual researchers
(Masso & Ukrainski, 2009). The competitive distribution of research funding leads to
concentration due to the Matthew effect (Merton, 1968), which is strengthened on the
organizational level by the increase of grant size aimed at creating critical mass at a select number
of organisations (Bloch & Sørensen, 2015). Consequently, the social structure of some research
groups has changed due to the influx of a large number of PhD-students and other temporary staff
members. For all researchers it has increased time spent on grant proposal writing and an
administrative burden to provide increasingly detailed information on output activities for these
grant applications as well as formal evaluations (De Rijcke et al., 2015).
Previous research on the effect of the rise of project funding points to a range of detrimental
effects on the science system as a whole, including increasing short-term employment, hyper-
competition, and the narrowing of valuation regimes (Fochler, Felt & Müller, 2016) as well as
increasing anxiety and career uncertainty (Sigl, 2016) - especially among early career researchers.
However, an understanding of the mechanisms through which project funding changes the social
structure of individual research groups is missing.
In this chapter we analyse the mechanisms through which negative consequences of project
funding come about, building on the existing literature and an in-depth case study of a, in terms of
project funding, particularly successful research group in the social sciences. We focus on the
structural effects of the rise of temporary positions due to incoming project funding, and on the
experiences of early career researchers in such temporary positions.
In the last section we discuss a response of senior staff members that try to counter the
individuating force (Knorr-Cetina, 1999) of project funding by promoting communitarian values
in hiring committees. While such a response is useful and necessary to establish the research
group as a community, it also introduces another set of demands to the already long list of what
early career researchers are expected to do. This suggests that communitarian ideals are not
straightforwardly positive (Stöckelová, 2014), as communitarian demands can be circumvented by
obtaining a project grant. This increases the inequality of expectations between those with project
grants and those without. We conclude that because of the structural nature of the mechanisms we
describe, individual research groups will be unlikely to be able to solve these problems and a more
radical shift in the distribution of research funding is necessary.
The effects of project funding: A model
In this chapter we present an in-depth case study of a Dutch research group in a social science
discipline. By combining our empirical analysis with prior research on the effects of funding, we
aim to develop a model of the effects of the rise of project funding on the social structure of
research groups. In figure 4.1 we present our model and in the following sections we will take the
reader through each element of the model as well as explain the relations (the arrows) between
each element. Our aim, and contribution to the literature, is to analytically and empirically clarify
these relations and their underlying mechanisms.
Figure 4.1: Model of the effects of the rise of project funding
To summarize the model, we argue that the rise of project funding (1) has increased the number of
temporary positions (2) as well as the length of the temporary career phase. The increase of
temporary positions means that the frequency with which early career scholars participate in the
job market (4) increases drastically. This is heightened by the increasing differentiation between
research and teaching tasks (3) and research intensive and teaching intensive career scripts and
trajectories, which push early career scholars to try to increase their research time continuously.
The rise of project funding (1) also introduces competitions for funding as a mode of governance
(5). With this we point not just to the rise of competitive behaviour but specifically to the
outsourcing of epistemic authority (that is the authority over what kind of research is being done
and who becomes part of the research group) to funding bodies that effectively determine whether
or not an early career researcher gets a position (through granting someone a project grant).
Both job market participation (4) and project funding competition (5) establish and reaffirm the
individual as the primary epistemic subject (6) in the science system. We show that early career
researchers think about the science system in individualized terms that highlight their CV, grants
and publications and pushes them towards entrepreneurial behaviour.
The differentiation between teaching and research (3), the frequency of job market participation
(4) and the competition for project funding (5) as a means to secure a position all increase career
uncertainty and anxiety (7) as early career researchers do not know what is enough to secure a
permanent academic position.
Project funding and the social structure of a research group
The rise of project funding (1): The Dutch situation
In OECD countries, science funding has changed considerably over the last decades. Most
importantly, there has been a rise in project funding which shifted control over large amounts of
research funds towards funding agencies (Auranen & Nieminen, 2010) that distribute these funds
across groups or individuals. The distribution of funds usually takes place through a competitive
selection procedure for which scholars have to apply by writing a project proposal (however see
Franssen et al., 2018 on prize funding). Project proposals are reviewed by either employees of the
funding organization or, as is much more usual, through a peer review committee that also draws
on external peer reviews of individual project proposals (e.g. Luukkonen, 2012; Glaser & Laudel,
2016, pp. 122125 for an overview of the literature).
In the Dutch higher education system, project funding is part of a three-tier funding system (see
Koier et al., 2016 for a detailed description). The first flow, from the Ministry of Education,
Culture and Science is traditionally the largest. The first funding flow is composed of a student-
dependent and a student-independent part and is allocated by the Ministry to the university. The
university divides these funds across faculties. In both the allocation mechanism used by the
Ministry and those used by universities, natural and life science disciplines are systemically
prioritized over social science and humanities disciplines due to historical developed differences.
The second component, the student-dependent factor, is based on student numbers and includes
not only funding for teaching but also some additional research funding. This means that in social
scientific disciplines in the Netherlands, more than among natural and life science disciplines,
research time and staff are linked to student numbers.
The second flow is research funding distributed through the Netherlands Organization for
Scientific Research (NWO) and the European Committee (currently Horizon 2020). As noted
above, this funding flow has become more important over the past decades and is also the main
focus in our case. It is important to note that funding through the second flow needs to be
‘matched’ by universities. The matching funds are relocated from the first flow and therefore
diminish the funds available for research from the first flow even further (Koier et al., 2016).
Next to individual and group-based project funding that is distributed through funding agencies,
additional competitive funding mechanisms have been introduced at the university and faculty
level (Versleijen et al., 2007). On these levels the allocation of research funds from the first flow
is increasingly based on past performance or, again, open competition. Examples of this
phenomenon are university-wide research priority areas, additional funding for ‘excellent’
institutes or graduate schools, or competitions within research institutes for project funding.
The third flow funds are acquired through contract research for private partners and (non-
)governmental organizations that operate in the public domain. For the department under study
this was a major source of funding in the 1990s and early 2000s but its importance has declined
over the last 10 years.
The rise of temporary positions (2)
The case
The research group we studied is part of a prominent social science department of a major Dutch
university. We selected this research group because of its success in acquiring project funding.
Between 2009 and 2015 members of the group obtained 7 individual grants from NWO or the
ERC, participated in a number of Horizon 2020 projects and obtained additional funding for PhD-
students through competitive individual PhD-funding programs and funding assigned to the
institute or graduate school as part of different ‘excellence’ initiatives.
We conducted interviews with 17 group members and one junior research manager. We
interviewed the group’s professor at the start and the end of the project. Also, we were given the
opportunity to observe research seminars and group meetings on a number of occasions. At one of
the meetings we presented our research as a ‘member check’. At the time of conducting the
research project (November 2014 May 2015), great upheaval characterized Dutch academia as
the building housing the central board of one of the universities was occupied by students and
faculty (Blaustein, 2015). This gave great urgency to the issues we were analyzing for the group
members and other academics working in the Netherlands. Group members tended to reflect on
the topic of research governance outside the context of interviews, for instance in faculty-wide
email discussions. In some cases, these emails were publically available (sent out to a large
number of staff or even university-wide) and we were able to collect them. We also collected other
relevant documentation regarding the group.
The composition of the group
At the time of analysis, the research group consisted of one professor, five associate professors,
eight assistant professors, four postdocs and eight PhD-students. In addition, two lecturers without
research time had permanent contracts in the department and were part of the group. The professor
and associate professors had tenured contracts. Of the eight assistant professors, only three had a
tenured contract and the others had contracts of approximately three years without tenure or
other form of extension. The postdocs had temporary contracts (often 1-3 years) while the PhD-
students had three-year contracts.
The rise of project funding has resulted in a new composition of this research group around the
group leader, who was PI of many of the external projects and supervisor of most PhD-students.
This new structure resembles the natural science labs (e.g. Knorr-Cetina, 1999) but is a relative
novelty in the social sciences. The size of the research group is a direct result of competitive
funding as usually all or most temporary positions are funded externally. While PIs often have
permanent or tenure-track positions, the much larger group of postdocs and PhD-students does not
(Müller, 2012; 2014; Sigl, 2016). In this case all temporary staff (5 of the assistant professors, 4
postdocs, 8 PhD-students) were funded through external project funding, which created a large
group of highly skilled, highly motivated early career researchers. Researchers on the associate
level did have permanent contracts and had often been successful in acquiring project funding
themselves.
The group leader was aware of the increase of temporary positions due to project funding and the
difficulties temporary staff members experience. He explained:
Group leader: Someone who has a permanent contract can, first of all, probably hire a
postdoc him or herself, a temporary person, and then we have the policy that a replacement
must be found, but the teaching should not be done by a temporary lecturer so then an
assistant professor for 4 or 5 years comes in, so you have two temporary members to be able
to give a permanent staff member the possibility to, for a while, teach less, and that increases
the dynamic because we succeed in bringing in good, talented people for these temporary
positions.
Interviewer: A large temporary basis.
Group Leader: And I mean, we really cannot go in any direction, because there wasn’t
even a job to begin with. And that is in this whole discussion the rock hard message, because
I understand the frustration and I see it, and at the same time, that we are having this
conversation is because a temporary position has been created because of a grant, otherwise
this conversation would not take place.
‘There wasn’t even a job to begin with’, as the group leader explains, characterizes the
contradiction inherent in the positions created through project funding. It is only first flow funding
that provides continuous funds, provided that student numbers remain relatively stable, for
permanent positions. All other funding creates temporary positions that will terminate after the
funded project ends. However, as he notes, this dynamic is intensified because the people that
come in on temporary positions themselves also acquire additional project funding. This
cumulative effect of temporary positions acquiring new external funding is an effect that the
literature has not addressed in any detail yet. The rise of project funding implies that, because of
the Matthew effect, funding becomes increasingly concentrated with certain individuals or groups.
As such, temporary positions become equally concentrated and new temporary staff members
acquire project funding of their own, thereby increasing concentration even further.
Increasing differentiation (3): Teaching intensive and research intensive career trajectories
Contracts of staff members in social science disciplines in the Netherlands will typically consist of
a 60 percent/40 percent time allocation between teaching and management on the one hand and
research on the other. This means that a staff member will, based on a full time contract, have
1000 hours of teaching and 666 hours of research time.
Acquired project funding can be used by staff members to ‘buy’ themselves out of teaching, a
common strategy in the social sciences. The buy-out is restricted in this particular research group,
because staff members are not allowed to buy-out fully. However, taking into account managerial
tasks and PhD supervision, senior staff members do not carry a large teaching load. The professor
in the group was involved in one course in the academic year 2014-2015 (based on the online
study guide of the university), and associate professors with grant funding also had a minimal
teaching load. Consequently, there is a large teaching load that does not rest on the senior staff
members.
The rise of project funding, and related the teaching buy-out in the social sciences, leads to
increasing differentiation and specialization among university staff and to either teaching intensive
or research intensive careers (Leisyte & Dee, 2012; Musselin, 2011). In this research group, and
the institute at large, this was perceived as an unwelcome development that the institute aimed to
counter. As such, there were only two lecturers with little to no research time in the department,
and management had developed a strategy to deal with the potential separation between teaching
and research staff. The organisational solution to this differentiation was the development of a new
temporary position, the temporary assistant professor (TAP). This temporary position introduces a
new hierarchical layer between the postdoc and assistant professor position and increases the
length of the early career phase in academia as characterized by temporary contracts. Where the
assistant professor position traditionally was the start of the tenure track in the social sciences, this
is no longer the case. These TAPs have contracts that themselves consist of 60 percent teaching
and 40 percent research. TAPs cover the teaching load of senior staff members who used project
funding for a buy-out. The development of the TAP showed an organisational commitment to the
academic ideal of the intimate relation between research and teaching in the social sciences.
However, as we will show below, this did not dissolve the tendency towards specialization, as
project grants increasingly determine both research time and career trajectories of early career
researchers. The TAP is therefore a temporary solution to extend the early career phase. However,
scholars who are able to obtain a tenure track assistant professorship are primarily those who
obtain more research time and project funding.
Crucially, early career researchers are increasingly socialized with a particular research intensive
career script as the ideal career (Müller, 2012). The rise of project funding changes how
researchers think about who has a right to research time. We find that early career researchers
have a fear of missing the boat of the research intensive career if they don’t get particular grants
that allow them to devote more time to research and publishing. The story of one TAP who was
transitioning to a teaching intensive position shows how continuing a research intensive career is
becoming increasingly limited to those researchers that can do research (and publish) in a
particular, high paced, way.
Elena: I prefer to make sure something's really good. I think of high quality, theory-heavy
slowly built papers. Slow has nothing to do with it, but it takes time to do that, I do not feel
rushed to just try to crank out publications. But here, I felt that right away, and I was like
“shit I am never going to catch up”. It is sort of this vicious cycle too, because if you do
not have enough papers you cannot get a grant, and then if you do not have a grant you
cannot get data to get 27 papers out.
Elena explains later on that she does feel appreciated at the institute for her teaching skills and in
general for her role in the group. In the social sciences the importance of teaching, compared to
the life sciences, might prevent a narrowing of valuation regimes (Fochler, Felt & Müller, 2016,
see the last section on communitarian values). However, what is important here is how she
contrasts her abilities (doing theory-heavy slowly built papers) to the much faster paced (27
papers) research practices of those that are allowed to continue doing research as assistant
professors in the Netherlands, and the importance of the cycle of publications-grant-data-
publications they need to sustain for a research intensive career.
Increasing frequency of job market participation (4)
The rise of temporary positions, and the increasing length of the temporary career stage, force
early career researchers onto the labour market much more often. The early career scholars in this
research group all applied to the same internal positions for postdocs, temporary assistant
professorships and tenure-track assistant professorships. This was often not to get an entirely new
position, but rather to make their current position more research intensive. Below we quote a TAP
and a postdoc who talk about their job history within the research group which gives a particular
good insight in how ‘patchworked’ academic positions are becoming:
David: I had a lectureship for 4 days a week, 100% teaching. (...) After a while, I applied
for research time. This was a policy that a number of lecturers could get 20% research time.
I applied for that, and I got it. So after half a year, 9 months that I just taught, I got a contract
in which I taught 3 days and did research on 1 day. After I had let them know a number of
times I wanted to become an assistant professor (AP), and also applied for an AP 2 or 3
times without getting it, I finally got a contract in which I worked 5 days a week with 40%
research time and 60% teaching. Then an official AP position came up and I applied for that,
and for that, so since August I’m officially an [temporary] AP (...) If someone would leave
now who has a tenure-track contract as an AP, and if a job application procedure would
arise, then I will apply for that and hope I get it.
Danielle: The postdoc is coming to an end. Last year there was a vacancy, a formal vacancy
for an open rank. I applied for that to become AP, but I didn’t get it, but I did get a
lectureship [meaning a teaching-only position]. And then, last November there was a
postdoc vacancy because of the research priority area, I applied for that as well. That
consisted of 0.8 FTE research time, and they have split that between me and [name of
temporary AP]. So we both got 0.4 FTE to do research within that project. (...) I will have
0.4 FTE teaching and 0.4 FTE research.
Interviewer: For how long?
Danielle: 2 years.
Interviewer: Okay, and when did that postdoc start?
Danielle: I am still working on the old postdoc.
Interviewer: You were hired as a lecturer but you have not yet taken that up?
Danielle: No I didn’t. But that will be my official title. Lecturer, but with research time.
Project funding has introduced, through short-term contracts, a much greater sense of competition
for early career researchers. As the quotes above show, early career researchers are constantly in
competition. These experiences of competition also mark the moments where early career
researchers feel evaluated. Danielle explains that the length of contracts prevents the yearly
appraisal from being a significant moment:
Danielle: It [the yearly appraisal] has never really been relevant for me because my
contracts were so short. Right after the yearly appraisal a new contract would start. For me
the job application is the evaluation moment, not the yearly appraisal. I have another one
coming up about my current post but after three months that will seize to exist, so I don’t
really care what the appraisal is about.
Interviewer: but you do feel you are being evaluated?
Danielle: Yes, in the job applications.
Competition as a mode of governance (5)
Competition was not only a more recurrent phenomenon due to participation on the job market,
but also because of the competition for project funding, increasingly, as a mode of governance (De
Boer, Enders & Leisyte, 2007; Felt, 2009). That is, competition for project funding is increasingly
a means to govern who becomes part of the research group, or more broadly speaking who is
allowed to stay in academia by creating a job for oneself (Müller, 2014), or whose career
progresses after the early career phase (Bloch, Graversen and Pedersen, 2014).
In our case, too, successful grant applications could be used by early career researchers to
negotiate a position in the research group, possibly a tenure-track one (in case of large grants).
One postdoc explains how grant applications increase her worth, in terms of her CV, and give her
leverage towards the university to obtain a position:
Interviewer: How do you see funding applications, as a way to get a job somewhere? Or is
it a way to create a job for yourself?
Mags: (…) If you get a Veni, and that's also what people tell me, then you're much more...
You're WORTH more in academia, because wow, you got that. There is a lot of pressure
of course involved in it. So, yeah, it's not only your money or you know, I guess people... I
mean... Not in my position, but who actually have a job, or at least a contract for a bit
longer, and don't get the Veni are also very much under pressure, because this is something
that counts a lot. And this was something that someone from [project] in the first few
months told me, that if you get that, you can have a good career here. It's very special.
Interviewer: If you would get it, the Veni, would you then become assistant professor?
Mags: That would be a condition yeah. (…) Then you're worth much more here, you offer
something, and I understand that the university also... Yeah, basically, they are proud of
having Veni-researchers. The [university] advertised it last summer: this is how many of
them we got so this is a good thing for them.
The increasing importance of project funding as income to the university also means that the
research group and group leader becomes increasingly important institutionally. Group leaders are
nodes through which competitive project funding comes into the university (Edler et al., 2014;
Whitley, 2014; Raudla et al., 2015). This means that high-performing group leaders can direct the
course of research, through successful funding applications, to an increasingly large extent.
Epistemic authority thus shifts in two ways; to funding bodies and to group or project leaders.
Individuation: The individual as the primary epistemic subject (6)
In being on the job and grant market, in competition with peers, the individual is constantly
established and reproduced as the primary epistemic subject (Knorr-Cetina, 1999: 205). This
individuating force, and the way early career scholars respond to it, calls to mind the process of
individualization that characterizes late modernity (Beck, 1992; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002).
Beck’s individualization theory points to individualization as a process in which people learn to
see themselves as ‘the centre of action’ (Beck, 1992: 135) in which society becomes a set of
‘environmental variables’ (136) that need to be dealt with to build the life one desires. Rather than
relate what happens in the life course, for instance failure in terms of social mobility, to systemic
contradictions, it is reconceptualised as a set of individual risks and opportunities (Beck & Beck-
Gernsheim, 2002). The individualization of precarity, where this is felt as a personal failure rather
than a sign of system failure, is a particular harmful outcome of this process (Gill, 2010; Sigl,
2016; Loveday, 2017).
Moreover, the reflexive biographies that early career scholars are building follow an increasingly
narrow career script (Müller, 2012) as they report a narrowing of valuation regimes, towards a
single form of academic worth, focused on high-impact publication output (Fochler, Felt &
Müller, 2016; Müller, 2014). This was true also for our early career researchers when they talked
about continuing a research intensive career. The insecurity of fixed-term positions pushes the
early career researchers in the group towards an entrepreneurial and reflexive strategy. They are
reflexive about their careers, what is lacking, what needs to happen and how they can influence
their position. As they are in a constant competition, for jobs or grants, they feel a constant need to
appear attractive as candidates for a new (tenure track) position or a project grant. Denise reflects
on how she does this:
Denise: I think it is really important as an assistant professor to find your niche, about that
there might be comparison going on between each other.
Interviewer: And then others gauge whether you are in their way, in a manner of
speaking?
Denise: Yes exactly, because everyone wants to find his or her niche. If we all go towards
[subarea], that is [group leader] his main topic, you cannot raise your profile with that
theme. My profile is really being in between [two sub areas]. I think everyone is looking
for his or her own niche (…) You are also really thinking about your CV. And it is really
important. And besides that I want to function well [in the department]. I like organizing
things, and I think it is important to get good student evaluations, because I want to be a
good teacher and a good academic. It is also really about output, indeed about publications.
(…)
Interviewer: I aim to understand what it is like to be in a 3-year contract, when you have
to publish a lot, but it doesn’t seem to affect you, do you think it influences your research?
Denise: Maybe it does. Maybe you want to publish even more, you want to do as many
different things as you can I think. I really enjoy working with others, so I like saying to
people “Maybe we can write a paper about this and this.” Whether we will really get to
write it, that is the next question of course, but you try to keep balls in the air in the sense
of “we could do this and this”. At the moment for the yearly [global disciplinary
organisation]-deadline, a big conference deadline, I try to finish stuff, now there are five
papers and they can be submitted.
Denise clearly shows reflexivity about her CV and what needs to be on it to make it. She reflects
on what it takes to be an enterprise or a brand that needs to be visible and needs to show potential.
It is this continuous showing of potential and worth that is important in a science system in which
research time is increasingly distributed on a competitive basis rather than part of the job. This
also makes for a strong individual focus. Research time is understood as something that an
individual can receive, rather than acquired through collective effort. Indeed, while some grants
are collective in nature, the individual grants offer greater prestige and larger funds which puts one
in a position to secure a tenure track position. The seeming certainty of employment a grant
implies is the main reason for its desirability. The importance of publication is derived from the
grant competitions in which publication counts are said to be crucial in judging ones CV.
Anxiety and career uncertainty (7)
The short-term contracts and constant competition on the basis of individual merits create
immense pressure on early career researchers (Müller, 2014; Sigl, 2016; Fochler & Sigl, 2018).
Early career researchers tend to do as much as possible without a clear idea of what is enough.
This is well documented in the literature and also came up often in our interviews in a pressure
early career researchers put on themselves. As one example among many Ron illustrates this
reflecting on why the work is never finished:
Ron: I work hard yes, that is a bit of a problem sometimes.
Interviewer: Do you have on the weekend, a morning, afternoon or day of?
Ron: Yes I do. I notice that I do have to take a bit of rest this week. That is the disadvantage
of the postdoc-life: that there is an endless stream of work. And much of it us just for
yourself. I have 20 students, that is manageable, and other than that I don’t HAVE TO do
anything. Everything I do, I do for myself. That makes it very alluring to just continue. But I
don’t work 7 days a week, and I sleep in, but I have to be careful I don’t exaggerate it.
Interviewer: that you don’t work too hard and too much… is that a problem with postdocs?
Ron: For me it is. Look if you put me in one of those work surveys, then I will score high on
stress and… but I have a temporary contract, if I want to continue in the academic world
then this is the moment to step on it for a bit. Not endless. Last summer I was on a holiday
for three weeks, and this summer I will go for a month so it isn’t like. I do take a holiday.
For sure. But like this during the week (…) it is often that nearly every day, also in the
weekend, you have something to do, that isn’t always nice.
Countering individuation by promoting communitarian ideals in hiring committees
In this research group, senior staff members aim to counter the individuating effect of the rise of
project funding by promoting communitarian ideals and merit-based (rather than publication
count-based) hiring procedures. The group leader explains that publication counts are not all that
matters when a position opens up:
Group leader: I will dare to say out loud that our selection committees are not blind and
stupid. It is not the case that if there are 4 internal candidates and you see that one has 7
publications and the other has 1, ‘oh weird that person has 7 publications within [name]
VICI-project, or [name] ERC-project’, that nobody thinks ‘oh well, it is convenient to have
data on 25 countries being embedded within such a large team’. So that person with 1
publication can be compared to the person with 7. People are not blind to those things. What
is more, often you have a different assistant professor-selection criterion: you do not want to
have 7 APs who all do the same thing. So maybe that person who has 1 publication, who
represents a different sub-area, maybe has a competitive advantage in a different area, can
teach broader for instance, which is 60% of an AP-position. So it might look like it, but for 8
years I have been in almost all selection committees and they can see through that. If
someone comes from a big project, and is co-author on 5 things within the project, then you
can still compare that to someone who almost did a solo project.
What matters according to senior members of the research group is the extent to which group
members contribute group work and act collegially. In almost all interviews the issue of
collegiality came up. Interviewees argued that collegiality was very important for them, and that
they appreciated this in others as well. This senior staff member feared collegiality was not valued
in job application procedures, and he contrasts collegiality with publications, but his experience in
the institute proved otherwise:
Christoph: I feel there has been discussion the last years about that it cannot be only
publications, and of course there always already was some criticism from outside that we
would be soulless publication monsters. My feeling is, and I have been through many job
application procedures here, my feeling is that it has become increasingly important what
you do for the group, the softer things, that that plays a role. I was always afraid that that
would not be the case, but my feeling is that it does matter, that is my experience.
Interviewer: Is that being made explicit, that that is important?
Christoph: Well, the other way around. It is never stated that it is only about publications.
There is no official guideline that says ‘If you have this and this and this and this, then you
will be successful’ or something like that.
A second senior-member explains that a research group needs a diverse group in terms of topics
but also in what people are willing to do, for the group to function:
Sarah: I think definitely. I think output of course is number 1. I think there is an awareness
that you can't just run a department on loners who can publish 50 articles per year, that's
impossible, it will implode. You need a couple of people who keep it together.
The staff members in temporary positions also understand that helping out in the group is part of
their job and doing so has helped them or will help them in job application procedures. David
explains:
David: If I look at my own trajectory, then I see that, after my PhD, I solved a lot of tasks
that had to be solved, but that a lot of people could not or did not want to do. There was a
course for which within 1 month a new lecturer had to be found. I am someone who says
‘yes’ quickly with these kinds of things. (...) How flexible you are in terms of teaching,
helping your colleagues, being present (...) In the end that is something that plays an
important role. You have to look at the group as a whole, and that is what I mean with the
idea that I have an important role, in a way, within the group. Because I teach certain
courses, have a certain expertise, and maybe I do other things very badly, that could be, but
this type of position within the group you cannot account for that by measuring output or
measuring student evaluations.
The senior members quoted above, including the group leader, all declare that collegiality is
important next to publication output. The two senior members both call into imagination an image
of a ‘publication monster’ and a ‘loner who can publish 50 articles per year’, the type of academic
they might feel fits with today’s academic reward structures. This becomes clear because
collegiality is seen as something that does not show up in quantitative measures, it is never visible
but crucial to ‘run a department’. Without staff members that do ‘group work’, organize seminars,
are very active in teaching and coordination, the group could not function. But this also adds to the
already lengthy list of what makes a good scholar. A TAP from a different group concluded:
We spend a lot of time wondering what the criteria are but I’m not sure there are any criteria
at all. Like they see a person and think, oh I like this person, I like his work, so let’s hire
him. We can say this hire was based on X, Y, Z. but then next time it is D, E, F. There is no
transparency who we want to hire, and based on what criteria we want to do that. (fieldnotes,
12-3-2015)
The communitarian ideals make hiring procedures less transparent as they add a new valuation
regime that can be used, but does not have to be used, in selecting candidates (see also Lamont,
2009). As Stöckelová (2014) shows, a plurality of ideals is not necessarily better for early career
researchers. In this case, in hiring and promotion decisions made based on successful grant
applications communitarian ideals do not necessarily apply. Communitarian ideals seem to be
important for scholars who do not obtain a grant which increases the inequality of expectations
between those with project grants and those without.
Conclusion: The limits of valuation heterarchy without structural change
In this chapter we analyzed the effects of the rise of project funding on the social structure of
academia. We show that more temporary positions are created and the temporary phase in the
career is extended. Short-term contracts make that early career researchers are more often on the
job and grant market which in turn increases experiences of competition, establishes competition
as a mode of governance, reaffirms the individual as epistemic subject and increases anxiety and
career uncertainty. All of which impacts the social fabric of research groups and departments.
In high performing research groups such as the one we studied the effects of project funding are
visible to a larger extent. In such groups the amount of project funding is very large leading to a
bigger group of early career researchers in temporary positions. To establish a community, the
group leader and senior staff members promote communitarian ideals in hiring committees,
making clear that it is not just publications that determine whether someone receives a job offer.
While a heterarchy of valuation regimes (e.g. Stark, 2011; Rushforth, Franssen & De Rijcke,
2018) might be a way to counter the negative effects of project funding our analysis shows
important limitations. Following the analysis of Stöckelová (2014) we find that valuation regimes
are not inherently bad or good. Promoting communitarian values also adds to the lists of
expectations early career researchers have to deal with. Moreover, these hiring committees can be
circumvented by researchers that obtain individual grants who can negotiate a position. It also
decreases the transparency of criteria, which, while narrow, are at least clear when focused solely
on publication counts. This analysis teaches us that in a heterarchy of valuation regimes a crucial
question becomes what values count when and for whom.
Moreover, in high performing research groups such as this one the effects of project funding are
not incidental but structural. Success in obtaining competitive project grants will always lead to
more temporary positions, both PhD positions and post-PhD positions. The short-term of these
contracts will always push these early career scholars to the job and grant market. As the amount
of temporary staff members greatly surpasses the needs of any research group, based on their first
flow financing, for new permanent staff these temporary staff members will have to seek
employment elsewhere.
It is an important question to what extent the concentration of funding (and therefore of early
career researchers) in a small number of research groups negatively effects the discipline as a
whole on an epistemic level. The skills of any scholar are by definition limited. It might therefore,
in terms of epistemic diversity, be useful to spread research funding across a larger number of
groups.
Thomas Franssen is a researcher at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS),
Leiden University. He works at the intersection of sociology, valuation studies and STS. He
studies the effects of research governance on epistemic properties of research. He is particularly
interested in changing research practices in the humanities.
Sarah de Rijcke is Professor of Science, Techology and Innovation Studies at the Centre for
Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University, where she leads the Science and
Evaluation Research Group. Research interests include academic e/valuation processes, changing
research cultures, knowledge infrastructures, and roles of research in and for society.
Acknowledgements This chapter was supported by the KNOWSCIENCE project
(https://www.fek.lu.se/en/research/research-groups/knowscience), funded by the Riksbankens
Jubileumsfond Sweden, grant FSK15-0881:1 and the R-Quest project (https://www.r-quest.no/)
funded by the Research Council of Norway, grant 256223. We thank Francisca Grommé and the
editors for their helpful comments.
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... In all sixteen groups, we find behavior that we label as strategic anticipation (drawing on Mü ller 2014, see also Franssen and De Rijcke 2019). Mü ller quotes Adams et al. (2009) to describe anticipation as a state in which '[t]he present is governed, at almost every scale, as if the future is what matters most. . . . ...
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