What a wonderful holiday concept: spending time focused on gratitude for what one has.
There are many good reasons for giving thanks. Psychologist Robert Emmons and other researchers working within the emergent field of positive psychology have looked intently at the psychological effects of gratitude and found it positively correlates with well-being and goal-attainment. For example, Emmons and McCullogh (2003) conducted a series of experiments comparing those with a grateful outlook to those who did not and found those who expressed gratitude more often reported higher levels of subjective wellbeing in some of those studies. (For those interested, Emmons’ 2007 book Thanks! is an accessible primer on the research on gratitude).
Giving thanks is a way of introducing a small disruption in the everyday and inspiring reflection on the present moment. Gratitude is a part of many meditiation and yoga practices, as well as mindfulness practice (PDF – example).
So in solidarity with my American friends who are giving thanks on this day and all of us who take time to express gratitude on any day, I offer a departure from the usual post and share some things I am thankful for (in no particular order):
- To Artists. Those who share their creative outputs with the world openly and encourage us to see and think differently. Artistry can be aesthetic, part of performance and innovation (says Hilary Austen), and something that Seth Godin believes we all are, when we listen to what is important. Its the writers, performers, teachers, journalists, and engaged audiences that are all part of the creative tapestry around us when they choose to make their art available.
- To those scientists and researchers who spur exploration and share what they learn widely and openly and make the world better through making their work accessible, including supporting open access of scientific knowledge. The world has too many hoarders. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants because they bent down to help us up.
- To everyone who is willing to fail, get up again, improve and work to succeed and tell others about their story so others can be inspired to fail and succeed in new ways.
- To teachers (and that doesn’t have to be the person at the front of the class). To those who take the time to help others to learn, really learn, and understand material. This could be trainers, classmates, or grandparents — anyone who cares that I learn something and tries to help myself and others toward that goal.
- To students of life. Those who are willing to be taught, to learn, to adapt and to innovate when necessary. This includes clinicians and scientists using the best evidence to make decisions and pointing out where it doesn’t exist (and taking action on filling the gaps). It’s people asking hard, but important questions — including those about their own closely held beliefs. It’s those who see learning as fun and seek to infect that sense of joy in their fellow knowledge travellers. It also includes all of those who work in knowledge translation and exchange to help the learning process along in professional and personal life.
- To the organizers, funders, sponsors and participants behind and in front of TED, Thinkr, the RSA, Google Zietgeist Minds and all the organizations and individuals out there sharing stories of success, creativity, and inspiring us all to think in new ways. It’s easy to take all this for granted so today, I am not.
- To every person that smiles freely and often (and at me!). Smiles are contagious (PDF – example)
- To everyone who takes the time to listen and seeks to understand . We all don’t agree, but if we try to truly understand each other by listening, cultivate empathy, and mindfully reflect on our impact on the world, those differences can be sources of learning and creativity than unproductive conflict, hatred and ignorance. Too much of that and in a world of the 140-character sound bite, it’s too easy to be seduced by quick outrage and self-supported misconceptions.
- To the individuals who work at inspiring others to be their best selves through compassion and creation. The diverse voices of people like Seth Godin, Jonathan Fields, Brene Brown, John Maeda, and Jon Kabat Zinn who all provide means of making sense of human life and inspiring a greater appreciation of what happens along its journey.
- To the Internet and every person and organization responsible for developing it, delivering it, and maintaining it and fighting for the rights, freedoms and responsibilities that come with having so much knowledge, information and entertainment at our fingertips. It’s easy to take this enormous treasure trove of knowledge and services for granted.
- To every administrator or department chair who marshalls power to change the structure of the workplace to make it more humane, by rewarding earnest effort while providing the space to slow time to pause and think, nurture the organization’s collective mental health, and allow everyone to genuinely learn and share their best with those they engage with. Work takes up a lot of our lifetime — imagine if it buoyed us and sustained us rather than trapped us?
- To every person who says, means and listens to the message that we are all enough. The rat race is for rats and the human race is intended for human beings, not human doings.
- To everyone who feeds us — from farm to market to fork to the earth. Most of us have little comprehension of where our food comes from, travels to, goes through, or ends up and if we did, we might act a little (or a lot) differently. We have the luxury of ignorance in North America, but should we? Spend time with a farmer and you’ll be amazed at what you don’t know about the very things that sustain us.
- To every blogger and Tweeter out there who takes the time to share their thoughts and promote positive, critical thinking about topics that inspire new thinking. Thanks to the amazing blogosphere and Twittersphere, I have made a lot of wonderful friends I’ve never met in person, but who inspire me every week.
Thanks to everyone out there making the world better. Today is the day I give thanks to all of you.
What are you grateful for?
Photo By Marjory Collins, photographer for Farm Security Administration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The gap between what academics do and what those outside of the academy think they do is enormous. The mysteriousness and elite status that universities enjoy may actually serve to undermine the very values of inquiry and education that it seeks to promote. In this second in series of posts on academic life, I take you behind the curtain of Academic Land of Oz to illustrate what life for at least one professor looks like.
‘Cause you’re working
Building a mystery
Holding on and holding it in
Yeah you’re working
Building a mystery
And choosing so carefully
The academic world has been my home for my entire adult life and one that I helped to build and shape along with my peers with the aim of making a contribution to our collective knowledge, the education of (mostly) young professionals, and hopefully enriching all of our lives along the way with insight drawn from research. This is what the public thinks happens in universities and, to a large extent, they are right. But the way this is done, the roles people play, and the manner in which the academic system is designed and operates is as much of a mystery you will find in our society. But perhaps its time to (un)build it**.
And unlike the Wizard of Oz, this mystery does more to harm those both building it and experiencing it from the outside. How? In part, because times are changing quickly and public institutions along with it. When times are tight, there is little appetite to support professors sitting in their offices, thinking deep thoughts, doing research that has tangential value for society, teaching badly to undergrads and only to small groups of grad students, and taking four months off in the summer and three during the December holidays.
The first part of the problem is that this perception is widely off the mark from reality.
The second part is that universities seem to be doing a poor job of correcting this perception.
For starters, universities are investing a lot less in faculty than people think. In my six years, my university itself only picked up only a small portion of my salary. The rest was through a philanthropic donation, salary awards I earned from both government-funded research programs (e.g., the Canadian Institutes of Health Research), contracts with community service groups, or sometimes from grants. Unlike other countries, Canada doesn’t have a system where investigators can easily draw a salary from the operating grants they receive. Thus, I could afford research assistants, equipment and travel, so long as I didn’t get paid.
To cover this, I had to get separate career awards to pay for my salary and as these awards typically covered less than 50% of my wage, I needed multiple revenue streams at the same time. This meant writing 2-3 times the number of grants that a tenured faculty would have to write. To make matters worse, there are a lot more people in my position than there are tenured faculty so the competition was and is stiff.
In the current CAUT Bulletin, Tom Booth writes about this further in the context of academic freedom and the US system:
It is disturbing to note that only 41 per cent of faculty members in universities in the U.S. are tenured or tenure stream. The majority of those will be retiring in the next 10 years and unless the current trend to replace tenured academic staff with non-tenure track appointments is reversed, the next decade will likely see tenured faculty representing only 20 per cent of American university teaching and research staff.
Earlier research by Harold Bauder (PDF) on academic labour segmentation in Canada found, among other things:
In Canada, academic labour has been depreciating over the previous decades. For example, faculty salaries declined relative to total expenditures of universities, from more than 31 percent in the late 1970s to roughly 19 percent in 2004 (CAUT, 2006, 4). In addition, the faculty-student ratio at Canadian universities has changed. While in the 1992-1993 academic year there were on average only 18.8 full-time students for every full-time faculty member, eleven years later there were 23.7 (CAUT, 2006, 51).
For more on the problematic faculty math in Canada, check out the CAUT’s report on the state of university teaching (PDF).
But the research side of the equation isn’t faring much better. Last February I profiled the declining state of things in the United States, which is mirroring Canada. Scientists Johannes Wheeldon and Richard Gordon recently pointed this out in a column in the Huffington Post, stating:
The role of research funding to an academic’s career has never been more important, and yet there is an emerging consensus that the way we organize our system of research grants is broken. While concerns about Canada’s model of research funding are longstanding, in recent years they have become increasingly stark. These include perpetual underfunding, charges of bias, and an over-reliance on the peer review system, which favours orthodoxy over innovation.
In short: if you’re a young researcher your share of the funding pie is smaller than ever. If you want to innovate, your prospects are even worse.
Yes, but what about academic freedom? That does exist, for now. In all my years at my university my boss (the Chair or Director) came to visit me only a handful of times. No one checks when I arrive or leave, nobody even cares if I work from home or a desert island. As long as I show up for my teaching duties, respect academic procedures, and continue to produce good research, the university system doesn’t much care what I do with my day-to-day activities. That is a real blessing and supports creative thinking about big problems.
Yet, while I could sleep in almost any day, I never did. I could take a long weekend anytime, but instead was in the office. Visiting a cottage? Sure, so long as there was Internet access and plugs for a laptop. See the world! — just make sure you keep on top of your email. Family time is wonderful as long as there’s time to write before and after. My average workweek was 90 hours for the past two years. And while work does inspire me, too much of anything is not good for long periods of time. Oh yes, and did I mention that I study health promotion? The power of social norms, and of what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus, is akin to the Death Star‘s tractor beam, only you don’t see it; it’s deep within us.
None of these were enforced activities, but they are the norm. My faculty colleagues — young and old, tenured or not — work long hours all year. The system is set up for it. For example, the Tri-Council grants in Canada — SSHRC, CIHR, and NSERC – and many of the major health charities that fund research all have deadlines that require registration (pre-proposals) at times between August 15th and October 30th, which happens to coincide with things like: 1) summer vacation for most North Americans and Europeans (in August and the months before when you organize the research plan), 2) start of classes and the academic year, 3) orientation of new students, and 4) student awards and bursaries (for which we serve as referees to write letters of support). Just try and get a date for anything longer than lunch with an academic doing research during this time.
Grading? Our exams and papers are due at my institution on December 21, which means Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Years Day are all grading holidays. Pass the gravy on this turkey.
And we are the ones who invented this system!
None of what I am writing is meant to garner sympathy for me personally. I made these choices in my career with a hope it would lead to something good for the world, myself and those I care about. Sometimes I succeeded and others not, but they were my choices that I live with, whether wise or not. What I am doing is trying to paint the picture for others about the environment that I and other faculty and staff like me live in every day. This is not the idyllic life that the public thinks it is. And while the professor is still among the most respected professions out there, it will fall flat if times get tight and people are looking for more for less and we faculty are seen (misguidedly) as having more while others have less.
But what about pay? That’s a tricky one. I get a wage that I have no complaints about in absolute terms. I make well above the Canadian average, but not something that is anywhere close to being indexed to education. Considering I have 16 years of post-secondary education (education that I paid to have), I could have done a lot better going into other fields. But as a wise colleague of mine once said about pay in professor-dom: “you won’t get rich, but you’ll never be poor” . That counts for something.
At the same time, on an hourly basis, my pay goes downhill. And at some point, time becomes worth far more than anything I have to offer financially. I also have the support to spend money on my job. Indeed, teaching supplies, continuous learning, staff rewards (and continued education for them), and the incidentals from the job cost money for which there are few mechanism to pay from in most traditional centres. They come from somewhere and that’s the faculty member’s pocket, just as elementary and secondary school teachers often pay for school supplies. We believe so strongly in what we do we’ll do it without recognition or compensation.
We are a tribe that is as foreign to the public as the San people in Africa were to the first European explorers. But like a tribe we have behaviours that are not always pro-social.
Just as members of street gangs earn most of their livelihood from theft, academics gain most of theirs from careers. Being a member in good standing of a gang and a supergang is crucially important for advancement of one’s career. There is little chance of advancement in the academy without hard work, but flaunting membership in gang and clan can certainly supplement or even substitute for talent and intelligence. Clearly and repeatedly showing one’s loyalty to these groups can be most helpful in obtaining research grants and acceptance of publications, twin lifebloods of the academic career. – Scheff, T.J. (1995), Academic gangs. Crime, Law, and Social Change 23: 157-162.
It is a strange space to be in. Alien.
While I don’t particularly like the system we’ve created, it is what it is — today. But it can change if we — all of us — stop and pay attention to what it really is and work to make it what we want it to be. Well established institutions are hard to change because the practices within them are so deeply entrenched in a culture that is often accepted as is.
As this series unfolds, I’ll explore some more of these themes in detail.
The message to my fellow academics is this:
The modern university system has a lot of problems, yet our mandate and potential to contribute to the world through our research, teaching and social consulting is as big and needed as ever. Society needs us when we’re at our best, but we are doing more to undermine our best at our peril. We need to fix the system now otherwise forces beyond ourselves will force the changes on us in ways that may not be conducive to good scholarship, equity, and effective public service.
For those who like the system as it is, let me leave you with this quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s book, The Leopard:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change..
I don’t think we want things to stay as they are. But, we do want some things to stay the same.
This is the latest in the Alien Shores series of reflections on life in academia from one who is about to leave it.
** and yes, I know that un-building is not correct use of the English language. But deconstruct, take down, demolish or pull apart don’t work here. I am using my academic privilege to make words up
Unravel the mystery and crank up Sarah McLachlan and think about what these words mean for our business…
Sarah McLachlan “Building a Mystery”: excerpt
You live in a church
Where you sleep with voodoo dolls
And you won’t give up the search
For the ghosts in the halls
You wear sandals in the snow
And a smile that won’t wash away
Can you look out the window
Without your shadow getting in the way?
You’re so beautiful
With an edge and charm
But so careful
When I’m in your arms
‘Cause you’re working
Building a mystery
Holding on and holding it in
Yeah you’re working
Building a mystery
And choosing so carefully
Aside from the church, the university remains among the oldest continuous institutions in our society. Like the church, universities are facing challenges from massive changes in the way society views knowledge, authority and the role of the credentialed leader. This post begins a series of personal reflections looking back on a career in academia and the start of a discussion on what its future is in light of the changing landscape for science, knowledge and training the future leaders of society.
My entire adult life I dreamt of being a professor. I loved learning, teaching, and having the honor to serve society while being around those who felt the same (and still do). No job brings those things together like a university professor. On December 31st we say goodbye to 2011 and I say farewell to this dream as I begin a life as a full-time consultant outside the university. It is one of the biggest and exciting decisions I’ve made, but is not without some mixed feelings and a sense of sadness for what was, what is, and what could be. As I transition away from this world I worked so hard to get into and dreamed of for years I take pause to consider why I am leaving and what I am leaving behind.
When I was an undergrad I chose the university as my community, volunteering on student committees, forming associations, serving in student politics, and actively engaged in health promotion through work in peer counseling, outreach and social organizing. There was a time when my entire world was the university: I lived, ate, slept, studied, exercised, socialized and worked all in one place. It felt like home. Now it feels like an alien in many respects, prompting some reflection on the reasons why.
It is not surprising that I chose a course of action with my life that would keep me involved with a university through a Masters degree, a doctorate and a post-doctorate and through to a role as a professor. I have spent six years as a full-time (non-tenure-track) faculty member at a leading North American academic research university with research programs that spanned both ends of the continent and a global health program that stretched from Canada to the Middle East. Although mine was primarily a research appointment, I was highly engaged in teaching and the educational mandate of my school and had the opportunity to supervise more than two dozen Masters level trainees and many doctoral students (some of whom I am still working with). My job was funded initially through a philanthropic donation to start a program in global eHealth (3 years) and then through a combination of grants, awards and contributions from my home university (3 years). I taught exclusively at the graduate level, although occasionally was asked to do guest lectures in undergraduate courses.
My change in status was precipitated by the unavailability of funds from my home institution to continue contributing to my salary, effectively laying me off. While I could have continued to find grant funding, there were too many other reasons to decide to change and therefore I made the choice to leave the full-time academic life. The Alien Shores series, starting here, builds on reflections I’ve made over my career (and in particular the past 18 months) drawing on conversations with professors in North America and abroad from different disciplines, and senior administrators (Department Chairs, Deans, Vice-Presidents and others). While not a formal study, the ideas presented are not exclusively my own and are designed to reflect the academy in general, even if there is greater influence from the experience at one institution. All universities have their idosyncracies, but there remain common elements that are shared across them that I intend to focus on.
My journey: The great imagination
What drew me into academia was a vision that was partly a distortion and part of it a well-crafted, well-intentioned lie.
The distortion was the image of the professor engaged with her or his students, imparting knowledge gained from thoughtful research on an eager and enthusiastic student body. The reality share some of this, but was also comprised of:
…graduate courses filled with 25, 35, 45, 85 students crammed into rooms that were designed for teaching in the 1950′s;
…student supervision loads that involved taking between 5 and 10 students a year (as a primary advisor or committee member);
…minimal administrative support for teaching or research;
…administrative responsibilities that were almost Byzantine in their complexity and task orientation;
…a student body that was exhausted and struggling to balance the demands of coursework, home life and financial pressures the like no other generation has ever seen;
…an absence of clear guidelines on what was expected of me and my peers in a culture where you’re only as good as your last publication;
A joke goes like this:
FOUR REASONS WHY GOD NEVER GOT TENURE:
1. Only one major publication …
3. No references.
3. It wasn’t published in a refereed journal.
4. May be true he created the world, but what has he done since then?
There are more reasons, but these alone point to a major problem with academia and the “what is enough?” question. There are other issues, but these ones compounded on one another to the point where I questioned what kind of impact I was having and whether I would ever be granted the resources to do the kind of work that was demanded of me.
Faculty life is challenging not just on account of the demands, but that the academic world is so alien to anything else in our society. There are few professions where one is expected to develop 5-year plans with a two year employment contract or where you earn money to give to someone else who tells you what kind of conditions you should work under. Most people think of academia as a place where most faculty are paid by the university, teach as much as research, and get four months off in the summer. Nearly all of these are false, particularly in my field of public health. More than ever, faculty are bringing in their own money, work long hours, 6-7 days/week and are lucky if they get two weeks off in the summer that are not spent checking email or writing papers.
Indeed, this is an alien place and without some better understanding on behalf of the public, funders, and stakeholders, it may serve to alienate taxpayers. Universities are hallowed institutions of higher learning and research in an age where real education is hampered by a lack of instructional intimacy due to ballooning class sizes and changes in student-teacher relations and information is easily obtained through the Internet.
I thought that these two forces could be used for positive benefit in teaching and providing better knowledge translation of my research, but I was more often wrong than I was right. The ability to get it right and to bring the sense of purpose that was once a part of the university in sync with the modern information landscape and labour force market is going to be the key to the future of the university. In the coming days, I’ll share my reflections on what this future might look like by looking to both the past and the present. Stay tuned.
The concept of design thinking has been much maligned in some circles; declared dead, brought to life, and now, or like a zombie, walking in a state somewhere between. If the concept is to live or die it must do so based on evidence from research and practice, not rhetoric as it’s been up until now.
The FastCo Design blog has posted an article proclaiming: Is Design Thinking Dead? Hell No! by Grant McCracken from C3 at MIT. McCracken’s post was in response to the oft-cited editorial by Bruce Nussbaum a few months ago that I’ve commented on many times in this blog space about how design thinking is a failed experiment; basically dead.
According to McCracken, DT is still alive, or at least undead.
Few concepts have engendered such a strong reaction from so many. Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog, Peter Merholz made the case that design thinking has been an oversold concept and is not the tool some think it is. The Design Sojourn blog went so far to suggest that design thinking kills creativity. These articles run counter to a series of books, special issues and conferences that have sought to promote design thinking widely.
The concern I have for much of the discourse on design thinking — its life, death and zombie-like undead state — is that it is nearly all based on rhetoric alone.
Definitions of design thinking tend toward: Design thinking is what I say it is and I am a designer, therefore I know design thinking. While maybe true for an individual designer, such claims to a concept become problematic when, as McCracken points out, entire programs of activity from U of T Rotman’s b-school to Stanford’s d-school to IDEO and Jump have embraced this concept wholeheartedly and focused their business around it. The stakes are getting higher for design and design thinking with little attention being paid to what designers and non-designers actually do or think about what they do.
As an academic, I don’t declare something alive or dead until its been thoroughly examined. A concept like design thinking, if it is to have worth, must withstand scrutiny through both theoretical and empirical examination. A review of the literature (academic and grey) so far, suggests that neither has been done sufficiently. What is the theory of design thinking? We don’t really have one. It appears to be a set of strategies and a stance that are loosely connected to the process of exercising creative, intentional control in the pursuit of a useful problem solution. Does this set of processes or the stance produce good solutions or better solutions than other ways of doing things? We don’t know. In part, this is because we really don’t know what it is. That is the first step towards answering the bigger question about what it does.
Some, like Nigel Cross, have sought to do studies looking at what designers do, while others like Roger Martin, have tried to articulate how design thinkers think, but neither have done so in a systematic way that extends beyond a few case studies. A true, synthetic and empirically supported evidence base is what is missing. It is time to change this if the concept of design thinking is to have a future or is to be rightfully put down.
My colleague Andrea Yip and I are seeking to change this. Our project, Design Thinking Foundations, is focusing on a synthesis of the literature and interviews with leading professionals from different fields within design, branding, media, and business. Combined with observations and reflexive practice within our own design work, we intend to bring more than just rhetoric to design thinking, but data. Our stake is less in the name design thinking, but more to determine what it is, how it is practiced, and what value it brings in an empirical and theoretically robust manner. Through research we hope to answer the question about whether design thinking is alive and well or simply the walking undead.
Evaluation data is not always made accessible and part of the reason is that it doesn’t accurately reflect the world that people see. To be more effective at making decisions based on data, creating the mirrors that allow us to visualize things in ways that reflect what programs see may be key.
Program evaluation is all about feedback and generating the kind of data that can provide actionable instruction to improve, sustain or jettison program activities. It helps determine whether a program is doing what it claims to be doing, what kind of processes are underway within the context of the program, and what is generally “going on” when people engage with a particular activity. Whether a program actually chooses to use the data is another matter, but at least it is there for people to consider.
A utlization-focused approach to evaluation centres on making data actionable and features a set of core activities (PDF) that help boost the likelihood that data will actually be used. Checklists such as the one referenced from IDRC do a great job of showing the complicated array of activities that go into making useful, user-centred, actionable evaluation plans and data. It isn’t as simple as expressing intent to use evaluations, much more needs to go into the data in the first place, but also into the readiness of the organization in using the data.
What the method of UFE and the related research on its application does not do is provide explicit, prescriptive methods for data collection and presentation. If it did, data visualization ought to be considered front and centre in the discussion.
If the data is complex, the ability for us to process the information generated from an evaluation might be limited if we are expecting to connect disparate concepts. David McCandless has made a career of taking very large, complex topics and finding ways to visualize results to provide meaningful narratives that people can engage with. His TED talk and books provide examples of how to use graphic design and data analytics to develop new visual stories through data that transcend the typical regression model or pie chart.
There is also a bias we have towards telling people things, rather than allowing them to discover things for themselves. Robert Butler makes the case for the “Colombo” approach to inviting people to discover the truth in data in the latest issue of the Economist’s Intelligent Life. He writes:
What we need to do is abandon the “information deficit” model. That’s the one that goes: I know something, you don’t know it, once you know what I know you will grasp the seriousness of the situation and change your behaviour accordingly. Greens should dump that model in favour of suggesting details that actually catch people’s interest and allow the other person to get involved.
Art — or at least visual data — is a means of doing this. By inviting conversation about data — much like art does — we invite participation, analysis and engagement with the material that not only makes it more meaningful, but also more likely to be used. It is hard to look at some of the visualizations at places like
At the very least, evaluators might want to consider ways to visualize data simply to improve the efficiency of their communications. To that end, consider Hans Rosling’s remarkably popular video produced by the BBC showing the income and health distributions of 200 countries over 200 years in four minutes. Try that with a series of graphs.
Innovation grants are a misnomer, signifying one of the greatest problems with academic science and the quest to create novel solutions to important problems.
Yesterday the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute (the research arm of the largest charitable agency that supports cancer programming in Canada) announced its new, revamped lineup of grant funded programs to be launched within the coming months. Among the first of these new programs is one called Innovation Grants (PDF)while another is called Impact Grants (PDF). In fact, both of these new program announcements include the definition of each of the key terms in their program call:
Innovation: The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms. -Oxford English Dictionary
Impact: the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another; a marked effect or influence -Oxford English Dictionary
This is impressive in how they can clearly and distinctly linked the definition of the word to the program call. Why? Because too often grant program calls and their expression in reality are too often separate. I once served on a grant panel that was looking at grants aimed at ensuring quality knowledge translation only to find that most reviewers were comfortable with things like “prepare academic manuscript based on research” and “present findings at major conference” to be acceptable knowledge translation goals by themselves. I was appalled.
Yet, I can’t help but think, despite the good intentions here, that these new programs are going to follow in similar footsteps. The problem is not the funder, but rather the way that funding is granted and the reliance on the system to change itself.
The innovation grants are designed to :
support unconventional concepts, approaches or methodologies to address problems in cancer research. Innovation projects will include elements of creativity, curiosity, investigation, exploration and opportunity. Successful projects may involve higher risk ideas, but will have the potential for “high reward”, i.e. to significantly impact our understanding of cancer and generate new possibilities to combat the disease by introducing novel ideas into use or practice
The mechanism by which these grants are to be decided are, as much as I can tell, by peer review. It is for that reason alone that we can feel some level of confidence that these grants will fail outright. Peer review is designed to judge the quality of content by what is and has been, not by what could be. “Innovation” is about doing things differently, often markedly so. Scientific panels are about supporting incrementalism, particularly in the social and behavioural sciences.
Innovation is also about risk and the potential for failure. These are two words that are highly problematic in present day academic science. Firstly, if you’re a junior scientist, you may be working desperately to fund yourself and your research (and research team). The price of failure is high. If you’re not able to publish meaningfully off your research, you will have a hard time getting your next grant and keeping yourself afloat. In public health sciences for example, CLTA (contract limited-term appointments) are dominant.
I should know as that’s the position I hold.
But the tenured faculty don’t have it much better. While they are more secure, their research teams, graduate student trainees who rely on projects to develop their skills, and the ability to develop coherent programs of research are at risk every time there is an unsuccessful grant. There are real opportunity costs to pursuing risky ventures so many don’t do it
As one who has tried to be innovative with his work and having the privilige (or curse, depending on the perspective) of having interests that have fallen into the innovation category (or “trendy” category to the cynic), I’ve seen how innovation is treated and it’s not good. Innovation programs tend to split committees. I’ve had too many comments returned to me that have some variant on “this is amazing, potentially leading edge research!” alongside “the use of non-conventional methods makes this suspect” or “I don’t understand what this is supposed to do“. As one who had to endure years of questions like “I don’t see how this Internet thing has anything to do with health” in the early days of the eHealth this kind of line of questioning is familiar to me.
I point this out not to gripe, but to illustrate how innovation can get treated in academia. When you get feedback like I described it is very hard to critically assess the true merits of the proposal for improvement. Did people not understand an idea because it could have been written more clearly or did they just not “get” the innovation? Were those who were excited just caught up in the “newness” or were they really in sync with my vision? As a scientist, I don’t know the answer and can’t improve because the feedback is so contradictory.
And because innovators often create, develop or define fields of inquiry or practice that does not exist or is in development there are few if any adequate and available reviewers with the appropriate background on the topic.
In academia, we rely on tradition, on evidence (which is part of tradition, what has been done before), not on strategic foresight and innovation to guide us. That is a problem in itself. Universities haven’t survived hundreds of years by being risky, they have because they were safe (in spite of the occasional radical shift here and there). With complex social problems and the challenges posed by things like cancer, something risky is needed because the traditional ways of doing things have either been exhausted or are no longer producing the necessary health gains. Academics just aren’t positioned to embrace this risk unless the system changes — with them helping drive that change — to support innovation and not just talk about it.
Until that happens, the opportunities to live up to the definition of innovation posed about to create the impact described above will be limited indeed.