More than their share. 27th February.

As a member of the UCU I have been on strike a frightening amount this year. During the strike action, a colleague sent a tweet pointing out that much of the dispute we have with the employers’ organisations around fair and equal pay and precarity is figured in terms of ‘management’ being in dispute with ‘management’ but that many senior academics are involved in the recruitment of early career staff, from who’s precarious labour they then benefit. 

To elaborate: the rhetoric of the dispute could be understood as figuring ‘management’ as a ‘them’ and the unified mass of ‘workers’ as ‘us’. However, I am inclined to agree with my colleague that things are rarely that simple.

Responsibility for early career academics’ precarious contracts and the often-unfair nature of remuneration for anyone in a university that is not white and male is shared. 

Responsibility is shared by those of us that bring in grant income and attach PhD studentships or research assistant positions to them.

Responsibility is shared by those of us that request post-graduate teaching assistance.

Responsibility is shared by those of us that benefit from any kind of teaching ‘buy out’ or relief that comes from temporarily employed staff. 

No doubt (given my far-from-comprehensive experience), I have failed to identify other ways in which that responsibility might be shared.

Responsibility is shared then, but the ability to effect change in relation to that responsibility is a little less clear. The forms of ethical reasoning we might variously make in relation to how our responsibility works are difficult.

I want to work through a couple of the cases I identify above. The responsibility for the precarious working conditions and (potentially) unfair remuneration and/or workload of an early career researcher (ECR) is shared by the principle investigator (PI), the employing institution (departmental management, HR and others) and the funder. 

If a senior academic wants to do some research the cost of buying themselves out is very high, the cost of employing a junior colleague is less. The PI wants the research to be done, they may feel it would also be valuable experience for an ECR. A series of compromises ensue, hence the difficult ethical reasoning.

A prospective PI pulls together an application. They identify the work they want to do. Then, they look at the funder’s requirements and try to translate the ideal into the ‘fundable’. The funder might: only fund for a particular length of time; only cover some of the costs (e.g. pay = yes, expenses = no); have specific requirements about expertise; and other things I cannot think of.

So, the PI compromises. They want to do the research, but due to budget constraints and funder requirements they can only employ a research assistant part-time. They submit the grant with a part-time post because may believe an ECR will also compromise for ‘experience’, that there’s other valuable things they’ll get as a result, or because they hope to ‘top up’ the post with other funding.

Who bears responsibility? The PI seems to be making the active decisions here. Nevertheless, they are compromising because they face constraints. The funder will not pay enough, or for long enough, perhaps. The institution has increased its ‘overheads’ which increases the cost of employing someone. For a specific grant application, the PI has to decide how to negotiate their constraints to arrive at a ‘fundable’ project that (in the terms of this discussion) is also ‘fair’.

For research conducted in a particular university, the institution has to decide what research is ‘worth’ – do they want to invest in researchers, to develop the careers of all of those involved in any given project? Do they want to make the opportunity to do research open and equal? Do they want to support the administration and management of research-related people and resources? And as a result they will compromise. Sadly, the compromises that have been taken have become increasingly torturous. A PI is responsible for more and more complex administrative work, which may once have been done for them.

For a research funder, like the UK research councils, the political weather dictates the money available and the priorities. That politics can be unsavoury. Do they fund everything equally? Or focus resources on perceived priorities? Do they fund comprehensively or exclude some costs?

In the UK, the pot of money for research has diminished significantly in recent years. That pot is also largely prioritised. If an academic does research in a priority area they are, perhaps, lucky. Those that don’t work in such areas get weaker and weaker gruel. 

In the social sciences in the UK there is a growing pool of applicants, more grant applications being submitted and the success rate has plateaued somewhere around 13% for the ESRC. So, all things being equal (which they’re decidedly not), you need to submit over seven applications to see one succeed. 

I have seen estimates that a grant often takes up a month’s worth of work time to prepare (if the PI spent 100% of their time on the application for a month), so seven applications would be a huge investment of time and the resources and salary to which that equates.

Why bother? Well, the PI wants to do the research for a number of reasons. It is why we get into academia – (in overly-simplistic terms) to find things out. Many of us want to contribute to our understanding of the world around us, to contribute to the debates we find stimulating. Careers are also, sadly, pegged against grant income success. When I began my first ‘permanent’ position as a lecturer I had an income target set. Fortunately, it was not enforced and later was removed.

As you become more experienced and/or successful as a PI, it seems to me, you solidify a reputation and grant success breeds further successes. Research funders like to back ‘safe’ bets. We have arrived not at a meritocratic system of peer-reviewed excellence but at a recapitulation of a feudal system of ‘science’ (taken in its broadest sense) that would be familiar to 18th and 19th century academics. Careers are often contingent upon the decisions of powerful (whether they like it/recognise it or not) professors with grant success. Being written into a grant as a named researcher or co-investigator makes a career. Being alienated or ignored can break one.

Sadly, I do not have an upbeat conclusion here. None of this is sustainable. Especially when government steadily withdraws support and imposes metrics that encourage institutional behaviour that damages ordinary staff. We are already in a feudal system that exacerbates the worst kinds of workplace behaviour. This is a systematic issue more than anything. Individual (successful) professors can choose to exercise their power (such as it is) benevolently but (it seems to me) they cannot alter the system.

Faced with these issues it is incumbent upon all of us inside the system to find a way through – I suggest this involves collaborating a lot more, it involves acting in solidarity and with compassion. This may prove difficult for those of us who found our way into academia because it permits the ‘lone wolf’ worker autonomy rarely found anywhere else. Working cultures need to be rethought, collectively, with care.

Take care of yourselves and those around you, regardless of how it appears – we are in this mess together. If you are up the ladder, do not pull the ladder up – pull others up after you.

More than their share – Dolly Parton

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