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Research under pressure demands focus on academic values

The Academic Council points out that performance measurements such as h-index and the number of publications do not in themselves identify the good or poor performers in the research groups. The council has submitted an 'agenda' of important topics to the dean Lars Bo Nielsen. The key elements are a wish to focus on academic values, improve the opportunity of non-targeted research and to discuss priorities.

2017.05.04 | Nanna Jespersgård

The Academic Council points out that performance measurements such as h-index and the number of publications do not in themselves identify the good or poor performers in the research groups. The council has submitted an 'agenda' of important topics to the dean Lars Bo Nielsen.

Do not use performance measurements to define the faculty's 'under-performers' with the aim of differentiating them from 'high-performers'. Hasty performance measurements are superficial and do not promote those research parameters which are in Health's interest, such as quality, creativity and the ability for in-depth specialisation.

This is the urgent message from the Academic Council, who have used the change of dean as an opportunity to submit a memo to Dean Lars Bo Nielsen. Or maybe instead a proposal for an agenda for the coming collaboration.

The Academic Council advises the dean on all important academic issues and its chair, Professor Helle Prætorius Øhrwald, explains that the council has used the change of dean as a chance to select some of the topics that will determine how Health looks in the future. 

One of the topics deals with the need to focus on academic values after a decade of ever-increasing focus on performance measurements such as the number of publications, h-index or prizes and the ranking of universities and their researchers.

"These types of hasty performance measurements are undoubtedly here to stay, but they cannot stand alone when academic efforts are evaluated. Academic performance is something that varies between different subject areas and a high number of publications is not necessarily a valid parameter," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald.

She points out that there are differences between subject areas in both the volume of data and the work that forms the basis of a publication. There is also the risk of poor scientific practice or even dishonesty stemming from pressure of publication.

"The faculty should instead encourage in-depth specialisation, quality and a high degree of creativity and originality, which cannot be calculated in data points either," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald. 

We should take a different direction!

Helle Prætorius Øhrwald sees the growing preoccupation with performance measurements as one of the major, gradual movements of our time. The measurements have sneaked into the discussions and appear at regular intervals – such as last autumn’s visit of the Advisory Board, who recommended that Health should identify its underperformers and its stars.

Helle Prætorius Øhrwald points out that underperformance is a management concept that makes very little sense in an academic world. Instead she says that researchers should have peace of mind to plan daring and ambitious projects, where they do not need to worry about whether they lie above or below an arbitrary performance barrier. The faculty should instead take a different direction:

"The Academic Council recommends that performance measurements are instead used constructively by the management as a guideline for personal development. Of course, a manager must act if an employee's research does not bear fruit as expected, and perhaps the manager must stimulate the employee to enter into new collaborations in which he or she can flourish in terms of research. But it is personal knowledge and not performance markers that must form the basis for this type of guidance," explains Helle Prætorius Øhrwald about the background for the council's statement.

Constant focus on performance measurements also intensifies internal competition at Health, which is already implicit in researchers' job and funding structures.

"There is nothing wrong with competition, but we believe that toning down the internal competition can be an advantage when it comes to heightening creativity and that it can instead make us more competitive externally," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald.

While on the topic of competition, the Academic Council also warns against the senior management team assigning too much importance to the award of academic prizes in the assessment of the individual researcher's contributions. In the memo, the council write that in addition to the research qualifications, networking is also very much a parameter for the allocation of research awards.

“The Academic Council is certainly not against research awards, but we take the liberty of pointing out that awards are also a matter of contacts and timing. That is to say, a matter of knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. This is the case in most subject areas," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald.

Freedom of research?

One of the Academic Council's most important tasks is to safeguard freedom of research. Within the council, the members agree that research funding is the most pressing threat against freedom of research in Denmark.

In their memo, the Academic Council comment on the way in which non-thematised research funding is under pressure, because more researchers are battling for less funding, while at the same time, most of the foundation grants are awarded to strategic research. This raises the question of how Health increases the chances for experimental research breakthroughs and a creative research environment at a time where research funding is concentrated in fewer hands.

"There are a number of tools that a new dean can utilise. One of them is support for innovative pilot projects that are not a natural extension of existing research areas. Larger applications often require strong preliminary data, and it is therefore important that Health prioritises unique and slightly ‘alternative’ projects coming from young research talents," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald.

The Academic Council also recommends that Health works towards ensuring that adjustable grants again become adjustable grants. It ought to be possible to convert some laboratory technician hours into pipettes or to transfer funds that are granted to PhD students to postdocs, without this triggering a mountain of paperwork. In connection with this, the council proposes a critical review of the abundance of rules and regulations. How much is due to legislative requirements and how much is local AU administration?

Clearer communication – also of bad news

The question that naturally follows any discussion of non-targeted research is whether Health should prioritise selected research areas – and if it should, how. But the question of profile is a matter for the management, which the Academic Council does not believe they ought to be involved in determining.

“The Academic Council represents all researchers at the faculty, so it is not fair to pit areas against one another," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald. On the other hand, she emphasises that the council is always ready to discuss any plans for prioritising and their consequences.

In relation to prioritising, she would like to see the faculty management team communicate its decisions in good time. Including the unpopular decisions.

"We need to get away from a situation where you as a researcher have to listen to rumours to get a sense of where things are heading. It must be legitimate for a manager to say that the department will 'shut this down within the next five years'. This allows the involved researchers to stay informed about new directions, and also opens the door for a debate that can clarify any consequences for research and teaching," says Helle Prætorius Øhrwald.

"It should be generally acknowledged that there is still a tense atmosphere as a result of economic cutbacks and dismissals. It is important for individual research groups to know about their future prospects, so they can get involved in riskier long-term research projects," she adds.

Helle Prætorius Øhrwald emphasises that what may sound like a long list of problems and complaints should actually be viewed as a sign of passion. The work of the Academic Council stems from being concerned about Aarhus University in general and Health in particular. As Helle Prætorius Øhrwald puts it:

"We would not sit here in the Academic Council and discuss research and education, if we were not really passionate about this place and academia."

Facts about the Academic Council

The Academic Councils can make statements on all academic issues of substantial relevance to the activities of the university and have a duty to discuss academic matters presented by the rector and others for their consideration. At Health, the council’s tasks are to:

  • make statements to the Dean concerning the internal distribution of grants.
  • make statements on key strategic research questions and educational issues and plans for knowledge exchange.
  • make recommendations on the composition of expert committees appointed to assess applicants for academic positions.

The Academic Council comprises representatives of the academic staff, including employed PhD students, and student representatives.

Members of the Academic Council

Order of business for the Academic Council

Research, Research, Academic staff, Department of Clinical Medicine, Health, Technical / administrative staff, Department of Biomedicine, Public/Media, Health