Down these mean streets

Instead of Bad Science, more ephemera and academic angst. Dr Aust has been missing his meetings. Well, I don’t mean “missing”, more missing, if you see what I mean.

While Dr Aust was away at his conference last week he managed to miss a couple of staff meetings. One of these was a “Principal Investigators Meeting”.

“Principal Investigators”, or “PIs” is what we are now encouraged to call lab heads, or group heads, or “academic staff”.

I don’t much like the term “PI”, which strikes me as a slightly heavy-handed attempt to make us sound like a US University. Having said that, I guess it is slightly useful as a term which differentiates us from the teaching-only academic staff (“investigator”), and “PI” does usefully encompass both lecturers etc. (staff paid from public funds to teach and to do research) and research fellows (paid by public or charity money to do almost exclusively research). But it still grates a bit.

And personally I can’t say or hear “PI” without thinking “Private Investigator”.

Perhaps I should start wearing a trench coat and carrying a loaded water pistol.

Anyway, at this PIs’ Meeting we were to meet our new Line Manager. The Line Manager is somewhat like a Head of Department in the old days, though the Department no longer exists as a geographical entity (the grouping our line manager manages is now split over three, or possibly four, buildings), and now contains some sixty-odd “PIs”.

Now, one of the difficulties with the kind of re-organisations that David Colquhoun is always bemoaning is that they inevitably lead to situations where people do not know the people they are officially being managed by. Or, conversely, the people they are managing. Hence the need for meetings to Meet the New Boss.

Though Dr Aust missed the meeting, he is fortunate (or perhaps unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) that he already knows the New Boss from having taught on the same course unit a few years back.

It’s, like, the matrix, dude

Another characteristic of large “matrix management” systems is that one inevitably ends up being “line-managed” by different people for different parts of one’s job.

While this may not seem that odd, and is commonplace in the commercial sector, it does potentially present problems when the different parts of the job all have to occupy the same time, and when many bits of the job (notably research) are “elastic” – as in, they expand to fill any available amount of time.

Academics in UK Universities have classically had three jobs – research, teaching, and University administration. (Nowadays one might add a fourth, public engagement activity. I am still trying to work out if anonymous blogs count for this bit, by the way)

Much of setting workloads in academia involves the trade-off between research on the one hand, and [teaching plus admin] on the other. The notional percentages in this split vary between jobs, and institutions, and perhaps between managerial regimes. Historically the split was very vaguely defined – indeed, when I started twenty-plus years back nothing was said at all, and you were left to get on with it.

Anyway, getting back to the trade-off of research against the other stuff. It is fairly obvious that this trading off (and the setting of tasks) is intrinsically easier and quicker if the person for whom one does these two jobs  – the “line manager” – is the same person.

If the people are different, as is now commonplace, it is more difficult to make the trade:

“I can’t take on X job (teaching on course Y) as well as Z job (admin task) because I will then not have the time to do ABC jobs (research) effectively”.

Not impossible, note – just more difficult, involving more arguing and running backwards and forwards from one line-manager to the other, none of whom may know you and your work very well.

The Spreadsheet has Spoken

Nowadays this sort of discussion also usually involves a very very large Excel spreadsheet.

Sometimes I actually have the feeling that my bosses see me almost entirely as a line of cells in an Excel spreadsheet. Probably with many of the cells coloured red.

Indeed, with the computing power and logic operations now available, I am pretty sure the Excel spreadsheet can identify me automatically as a “possible problem”, without any input from my human bosses being required at all.

Still, at least I don’t work at the neighbouring North of England University whose academic staff were telling me at the conference that they are being threatened with having to re-apply for their own jobs.

So as usual, “tout va au bien”, as Voltaire might have said, “dans le meilleur des mondes possibles”.


PS – If you hadn’t spotted it, the title of this post is a reference that I have dragged in kicking and screaming from the work of Raymond Chandler, noted writer of classic Private Eye (PI) fiction and creator of the immortal Philip Marlowe.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

— Chandler “The Simple Art of Murder”

Apart from the fact that I have always loved Chandler’s books, the phrase “a disgust for sham” makes me think that Chandler would have been a natural sceptic.


18 Responses to “Down these mean streets”

  1. Edmund Says:

    In my university, permanent members of staff (lecturers and above) are paid by the department (presumably from the HFCE), and they are expected to devote 100% of their time to teaching. In order to do research, research grants have to include a contribution for the PI’s salary to buy back time from the university.

    While this strikes me as rather fussy, it’s actually quite a good resolution to the time management issue: you’ve raised 60% of your salary from EPSRC, so it’s clear that you should only spend 40% of your time on teaching/admin. A couple of members of staff in my department have raised 100% of their salary from EPSRC grants, and have brought themselves out of teaching altogether.

    [As is to be expected, postdocs are required to spend 6 hours in term time, and this is not compensated for by the research councils]

    BTW, I love the idea of the scientist as Marlowe!

  2. jdc325 Says:

    I can’t say or hear “PI” without the theme tune from Magnum popping into my head. Fortunately, it has been swiftly displaced by Won’t Get Fooled Again on this occasion. I’ve never read any Chandler but I like the quote you end with. Might have to see if my library has any of the Marlowe novels in its catalogue.

  3. draust Says:

    Is that a “post-1992” University, Edmund? Sounds like it might be.

    In the older research-intensive UK Universities (broadly the Russell Group) the split is usually taken rule-of-thumb-ishly to be 50-50 ish (i.e. staff whose salaries come from the public purse via HEFCE are expected to be doing research and teaching/admin, very roughly half time on each). At least, that is the situation in lab-based science disciplines. I am not sure if that would be the same in social sciences.

    Of course, even among the research-intensive Universities, the actual proportion of University/Faculty income that comes “tagged” as “for teaching / for research” varies widely, and hence conceivably the proportion of time HEFCE-funded academics would be presumed to spend on each activity.

    For instance, in the Faculty/Univ I work in, the income comes almost exactly 50:50 split between teaching and research. In smaller, but still “research-intensive” Univs (maybe at the less wealthy end of the “1994 group”?), the income split might be 85:15 teaching to research.

    If you go the “Golden Triangle”, then it is likely different in the other direction. Someone I know was recently telling me that a science job they applied for at one of the big London Colleges, and which was badged as a “teaching led” lecturer appointment (i.e. teaching requirements were an important criterion in appointing) was actually supposed to be 70% time for research.

    In addition, within a 50:50 teaching:research split science faculty, different HEFCE-funded people who do both teaching and research (with identical “do teaching and research” contracts) will have widely differing teaching loads. This can vary by at least a factor of 4 or 5 in my experience. For instance, as I haven’t had much grant income the last few years I currently have about 2.5 times the average amount of teaching for my “pay grade”.

    The “Full Recovery” of PI salaries on grants is pretty new in the UK, deriving from the “Full Economic Costing” (FEC) regime that the Research Councils brought in just a few years ago (Sept 2005?). I am honestly not sure if we use it to let people “buy themselves out” of teaching. Their teaching load certainly goes down (see above), but I think we probably don’t make this explicit, as in “Get a Research Council grant for 20% of your time and you will definitely get to lose 40% of your teaching and admin”.

    This is partly because much funding for bioscience especially comes from research charities like the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research, British Heart Foundation etc, who are opposed to this kind of “reclaim full cost” regime and typically won’t pay fractional costs of PI salaries on grants. (You can see what the Wellcome Trust say about FEC here).

    If you let the Research Council grant-owning academic staff off teaching, but not the charity grant-owning academic staff, you would be badging one kind of science funding as better than others in a very divisive way. Some institutions may be doing this, but in practice I think most places “fudge” things and basically say: “as your grant portfolio / lab size / number of research staff to manage gets bigger, we will titrate your teaching down, if you want us to, by negotiation.”

  4. draust Says:

    jdc, a Chandler omnibus containing The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye is a definite holiday reading recommendation.

    If you’re dipping into period PI stuff then personally I think the other classic writer apart from Chandler is Dashiell Hammett. There is a good compilation of his shorter stuff published as The Continental Op (the title refers to the unnamed detective protagonist who works for the “Continental Detective Agency”).

  5. Maxine Says:

    I have a battered paperback in my office – called private investigator (or maybe principal investigator, I forget), it is written by a well-known biologist and is a scientific detective novel. I reviewed it many years ago for Nature and hung onto it in case I ever came across anyone who might want it. Let me know if you want me to mail it to you.

    I prefer Dashiell Hammett to Chandler, myself. Contemporary recommendations for holiday reading are Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, who are carrying on the tradition with their excellent LA novels (MC is police procedural, RC is private eye).

  6. draust Says:

    Fascinated by the sound of the scientific detective novel, Maxine – would love to read it, so please do send it to me.

    I’ve read a couple of Michael Connelly’s books, but Robert Crais is a new one on me – will have to check one out.

    Of contemporary (or near contemporary) private eye writers, a favourite of mine was James Crumley, who sadly died last year. The one I usually force friends to read as a starter is The Last Good Kiss. The oft-requoted first line, which appeared in many of Crumley’s obituaries, runs:

    “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

    The Last Good Kiss actually has definite (and probably conscious) plot echoes of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which makes for a neat “circle”.

    Another of my PI writer faves is Washington DC-based George Pelecanos, who has latterly been writing scripts for the brilliant TV series (and my current viewing addiction) The Wire.

    Finally, not really a PI writer, but another one whose stuff I used to collect, and who remains unbeaten to my mind as a dialogue writer, is the late George V Higgins. For anyone who wants an insight into how US municipal (city) politics works, his book A Choice Of Enemies is a classic, though the book people mostly remember is The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which was made into a pretty good movie that still shows up on TV occasionally.

  7. Svetlana Says:


    Conan Doyle FOREVER! Sherlock Holmes! :P :)

  8. draust Says:

    Ah… Sherlock Holmes.

    Personally I can’t really warm to Victorian fiction on the page, mainly because I find the language so long-winded. So I have enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories mostly via dramatized versions on TV and film. I was a big fan of the wonderful Jeremy Brett Holmes dramatisations (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). Easily the best I’ve seen and – according to one of my best friends who is an Oxford English graduate and an aficionado of Victorian fiction, especially Dickens – the definitive screen portrayal of Holmes, at least in English.

    Holmes is obviously an important detective for scientists since he is of the “painstaking forensic acquisition and logical deductive interpretation of evidence” way – which pretty much starts with the Holmes stories. Of course the character of Holmes was inspired in part by Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle’s anatomy / pathology teacher at Edinburgh University and a pioneer of forensic pathology.

    Many modern TV ‘tecs and cops owe something to Holmes in different ways, e.g. the Gil Grissom character in CSI Las Vegas – and most obviously the character of detective Bobby Goren in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, who seems to me to be a quite deliberately constructed “modern Holmes”, right down to the mannerisms and mercurial nature.

    I find it interesting that now that the Grissom character has been written out of CSI Vegas, they have replaced him with a new character of similarly Holmes-ian attributes in Larry Fishburne’s Ray Langston, who is supposed to be a “lapsed” forensic pathologist / psychiatrist.

  9. Edmund Says:

    “Is that a “post-1992″ University, Edmund? Sounds like it might be.”

    Nah, a Russell group place that has recently left the University of London. I think it’s the physics/bio divide – I hadn’t thought about charity funding, almost all of our funding comes either from the research councils or industrial support. Reading Welcome’s statement on FEC, I can quite understand their position. What struck me about FEC – which I came across for the first time last year while costing a proposal – was how arbitrary the system that the institution uses to estimate cost is. It struck me there was considerable room for gamesmanship, reducing/increasing the cost depending on what category a particular expense was listed as. I imagine this will be tightened up by the next time I have to use it. As an undergrad we were taught in two-on-one tutorials; when I came to my present institution to do my PhD, I was surprised by the much larger “tutorial” sizes.

    Teaching loads vary hugely across staff, too: some who spend a lot of the year at foreign research institutes manage to escape teaching altogether.

    Our department has recently decided to employ full-time “teaching fellows” who “are not expected to maintain a research profile”. I have decidedly mixed feelings about this – on the one hand it encourages staff to devote time to research, for the RCs to properly fund PIs for that research, and to maintain a halfway decent student-staff ratio; but on the other it creates a two-tier environment of researchers and teachers, and it detracts from the ideal of a university as a community of scholars who are both generating knowledge and imparting it to the next generation.

    On a separate note, Phillip Kerr’s “A Philosophical Investigation”, which was written in the 90s and set in the 2010s, is an extremely good example of a detective story in SF.

  10. Dr Aust Says:

    Hi Edmund.

    Yes, I liked A Philosophical Investigation a lot, probably best of Kerr’s modern/futuristic works that I’ve read. The science in it was actually quite sensible – or at least not totally implausible.

    As you may have gleaned from my post, we have teaching fellows where I work. Most are ex-postdocs (hired after 3-5 yrs postdoc typically) who have then done a full or part-time PCGE.

    Our TFs are really good, on the whole, and carry a vast chunk of the overall Faculty teaching load, particularly in practical class and tutorial teaching. The issue of where/how they fit in with other (teaching and research) staff is a tricky one, though. There is usually a tendency to “house” teaching-only staff together in most places I know about, with the idea often being that they can trade and pool ideas, no doubt badged these days as “spreading best practice” (ugh). Of course, while this is good in some ways it does tend to separate the TFs a bit from the traditional “T+R” academics. Luckily this hasn’t been much of a problem where I work, though I think this may in part be that many of our teaching fellows are people who did their PhDs and/or postdoc-ing in-house, and are thus historically well integrated with the rest of the academic staff.

    Our teaching fellows are typically required to do more than just teach to progress to higher grades; the “doing more” can be various things, but “education research” is one of them. A slight personal gripe is that this “education research” tends to be rather more about “process” and rather less about content. That is, it is less likely to be about:

    “let’s try and devise a new and inexpensive practical class that works really well as a way teaching topic X”

    – and more likely to be:

    “Can we see any difference in assessment scores or student satisfaction scores if the students do a simulation instead of a lab practical experiment.”

    The difference is subtle, but I personally think it tends to detach people a little more from the discipline they trained in. Not everyone agrees, though, and probably not many of the TFs themselves. And I am generalising, possibly too much.

    It is also worth a mention that most of the scientific learned societies are trying hard to keep teaching in the discipline aligned with the discipline – e.g. by running teaching special interest groups, and having teaching symposia at their main scientific (research) meetings. I think this is important in helping keep research and teaching linked. It does mean the teaching fellows can attend the same conferences as TFs as they did when they were postdocs, which is a good thing in my view.

    Re tutorial group sizes, in the 20+ years I have been an academic I have never taught a tutorial group with less than six students in it. The biggest has been fifteen, and the average (which is a bit meaningless, actually, as it encompasses several different degree courses) would be typically around nine or ten.

    Even Oxbridge is not really one-to-one tutorials any more, of course, though I suspect theirs may still be two to four students. But since the general rule of thumb is that the public purse pays roughly twice as much (per student per week in attendance at Univ) for a student to go to Oxbridge rather than any other UK Univ, the lower student-staff ratios come at an obvious cost. And even then Oxbridge are regularly complaining that they are running teaching at a “net financial loss”.

  11. David Colquhoun Says:

    I guess that Edmund must be at Imperial then. That seems to be a place where any idea about “community of scholars” was ditched some time ago.

    That first came to my attention when it came to light that in Medicine, they were operating “productivity targets” based on insane metrics, which were guaranteed to get fired anyone who wanted to pursue real innovation (written up here). They seem to be well ahead in separating teaching from research too, so creating two-tier degree mills with the chores being done by an underclass with no job security, and giving undergraduates no chance to meet intellectual heroes. True, the latter problem may get less important with time because policies like these are hardly likely to encourage intellectual heroes to hang around for long. Imperial’s rector. Roy Anderson, has said he would like to convert it to a private university. It isn’t obvious to me that this would help to produce better and more honest science, but it would certainly keep out the hoi-polloi

    I am beginning to think, quite seriously, that the best way to get good science would be to limit everyone to an average of, say, two research papers a year. Anything more can’t have involved much thought. That would solve the crisis in peer review of papers too, it would increase quality and decrease the flood of low quality work that one is now forced to plough through. More seriously still, it is perhaps the only way to make sure science stays honest.

  12. Svetlana Says:

    …”to limit… two… papers a year”?

    David, I think it would not help. For some people it is too big number, and for other ones – too little. The point is not the quantity of papers. The point is the quality of work.

    And “private” or “state” is not main thing too… The main thing – who runs this university actually – whether bureaucrats or scientists themselves.

  13. Simon Says:

    Matrix style management structures certainly can have some benefits in project management, but as an entrenched structure it seems ripe for abuse. If you really want to avoid doing any work at all it would be very easy to account for time on nonsense admin tasks that really aren’t traceable, and with no one overall supervisor, then who is to really know what you are doing?

    Efficiency. It’s so efficient.

    I’m currently enjoying the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories. He’s like Wooster with a brain!

  14. Nash Says:

    At least they haven’t tried to call you a Business Unit Manager.

    Where I work, we dropped Matrix Management six years ago and went back to 1 worker, 1 manager after only 1 year.

  15. draust Says:

    Yes, don’t like the sound of that, acronymically speaking. Or a technology unit research director, for that matter.

    Of course, “lecturer” has it’s problems, as it often leads people to assume your main job is giving lectures, which is also inaccurate. If I had a tenner for every time someone has said to me, come mid-July:

    “You’ll be on holiday until September, then, what with the students being gone?”

    ..I’d be a lot richer, that’s for sure.

    Talking of Matrix Management, we are often told by our scientific colleagues in large companies in the bioscience-related industries that over-management is the bane of their lives. One of my most gifted ex-colleagues went to work for a large Anglo-Dutch consumer products group in their bioscience division a decade or so back. After several years he quit to become a radiation protection professional. When I asked why, one of the things he said was:

    “When you have to have four different managers meet up to decide what one technician is going to do for one day a week, then it’s really time to start sacking some managers… …fat chance.”

    Another of my ex-sidekicks who went the Pharma route took redundancy two or three years back from a large Pharma that was “re-sizing”, or whatever the current euphemism is, its UK operation. There, what the company did to “restructure” was to convene a panel of ten mid-managerial suits and get every single member in the research teams to go in individually and present their “personal vision of their own future in OurPharmaCo, with a five-year horizon” (for an hour)… followed by a further hour’s grilling from the suits. Very Dragons’ Den.

    The upshot of this process, according to my mate, was to cull, with an amazing reproducibility, the two best practical lab scientists from each eight to ten-person research team. It turned out that these folk tended to be the least equipped to sit and bullshit the managers in fluent Manager, which ability was the characteristic that was being positively selected to be retained. Of course, that may well have been precisely the strategy, if the company was “re-purposing” (sic) away from actual Drug Discovery, say into “Pipeline Management”

  16. Dorian McILROY Says:

    Well here in France we have a very formal two-tier system. In the blue corner, tenured researchers who have no teaching and are employed by the national research agencies (CNRS, INSERM, CEA). And in the red corner, lecturers/professors, who are university employees (or more precisely, education ministry employees, like schoolteachers) all of whom have a theoretical 50/50/50 split between teaching/research/administration tasks.

    One of the things I don’t like about this set-up is that undergraduates have no contact with many of the researchers working in their own departments, and no chance to profit from the specialist knowledge that these people have of their own research topics. Consequently, the teaching on this topic is done by people with the “lecturer” badge who may not be particularly interested in that bit of science. This also means that a lecturer who is a member of a vibrant research department will still have as much teaching to do as a lecturer in a department where nothing much happens in terms of research. The teaching load is only spread between the available lecturers, not all the available scientists.


  17. draust Says:

    Oops – forgot to respond. I like the idea of a 50:50:50 split, Dorian – many academics I know certainly claim they work “150% of the time”.

    I agree about the deep lack of desirability of undergrads NEVER meeting the researchers in their own Depts. One of the past strengths of the British system is that, unless the researcher worked in a physically separate institute, they would usually VOLUNTEER to do some teaching, perhaps most typically giving some final yr lectures in their specialist area and offering final year undergrads lab-based research projects.

    However, these arrangements typically depended critically on old and imponderable (and unfashionable?) things like “a sense of community and Departmental and discipline identity”. They also depended on the researcher feeling that their efforts in teaching were appreciated.

    Nowadays, since the researcher will probably have it made quite clear to them that unless they generate vast amounts of research grant funding they will be out on their ear, there is, shall we say, less incentive to behave in a way that serves the community, rather than oneself.

    A vaguely analogous logic applies to Professors. One very damaging development promoted by RAE has been the tendency for research-star Professors to opt out of teaching altogether in English Universities. This is very corrosive of staff morale, and also plays badly with students. If you were a student in a Department whose head was a renowned Professor of molecular biology, how would you feel if he never did a single undergraduate lecture?

    No academic with any political antennae really expects teaching loads to be equal across all the faculty, but most people think everyone should be doing some teaching, unless they are very specifically bought out of it – and even then the “researcher” argument applies, see above. The research-star Profs I have known who commanded the most respect from the rank and file tended to be the ones whose teaching was something symbolic like a setpiece series of 1st yr lectures.

    You could call, this, taking my example above, “selling mol biol to the 1st yr students”. You could also call it “walking the walk as well as talking the talk”.

    Or even, to use a much-overused word, “leadership”.

  18. Ant-acid « Dr Aust’s Spleen Says:

    […] Story, compare the following history, relating to my ex-Pharma pal, and originally recounted by me in a comment in the blog a year or two […]

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