Tag: research

knowledge translationscience & technologysocial systemssystems science

Have We Turned the Page on Social Science Research for Health?

Turning the Page on Social Science and Health Research

Over the last two weeks social science researchers across Canada began receiving the decisions from last autumn’s competition for a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding award. SSHRC is the principal funder of social science research in Canada, although notably is not in the business of funding heath-related research, which is supposed to be funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). [Full disclosure: I currently hold grants from both of these organizations]. The problem is that CIHR was born from a policy and programming body and the former Medical Research Council and has a rather awkward relationship with social science research given its medical focus. It has funded some social science programs, but not in a manner that has enabled social scientists to comfortably explore the range of issues that they might have under traditional SSHRC funding programs, particularly when social issues are not always obviously health issues (e.g., poverty, education) and can easily be dismissed as not being relevant in spite of the evidence that they are.  Yet, SSHRC has decided to forgo any funding of health-related projects due in part to the absence of funding to support it when there are presumably options through CIHR or the disease-specific health charities like the Canadian Cancer Society, the Lung Association and others.

Yet, these options are not suitable. In a manifesto entitled “The end of medical anthropology in Canada” a group of leading social scientists painted the picture of the situation in grim terms in University Affairs. Although medical anthropology is the focus of the piece, the authors might as well be speaking for social sciences in general:

Health is inherently social and cultural. SSHRC has always understood this; CIHR, we fear, does not. We face the possible extermination of one of the most vibrant, high-demand and policy-relevant health disciplines, the only scholarly field that places culture at the centre of the analysis of health and that characteristically does so in both national and international contexts. In a multicultural, settler society with a substantial aboriginal population, and in a world where health is at the core of developmental, political and social issues in so many countries, where Canada otherwise wishes to have an impact, does this make any sense?

This brings me back to the beginning of this post and the announcement of the results of the last competition. Looking at the funding numbers released by SSHRC, a discouraging picture emerges. In 2011-12, 37 per cent of all applications in the open competition were deemed fundable, yet only 22.5 per cent were funded. These numbers are similar t0 2010-11, when 36  per cent were deemed fundable and 22 per cent were funded. What is not mentioned in these numbers was the level at which these grants were funded in the first place. I am a 2010-11 recipient of funding from SSHRC — meaning my grant proposal was within the top 22 per cent of all applications for that year — and the amount I received was approximately half of what I requested. That means that I had to take half of my budget and throw it away. So yes, I was successful providing I did either half of the research or found money elsewhere. I did the latter and my pocketbook is none the better for it.

Consider the implications of this change in funding. With one in five projects funded and many of those that are funded at levels well below what was requested the motivation for researchers is one of the first casualties. Researchers know that funding is tight and that it is highly competitive, but few alternative sources for research grants that lay outside of specific disease-focused areas, social scientists young and old are faced with little option. This creates another set of affected parties: students and trainees. Research funding not only supports the scientists themselves in many cases (see my previous posts on this), but those seeking to become scientists themselves or those who seek to get better acquainted with research. In health sciences and policy, this means just about everyone enrolled in such programs.

Now consider all of this in light of a trend towards increasing graduate education numbers. At the academic institution I am affiliated with (like many of its peers), the enrolment numbers are set to nearly double across many of the professional programs associated with health practice and policy in the coming years. Increased demand for training opportunities from the public has created a means for universities to cash in. Of course, what these students will do when they get there is unclear (let alone when they graduate), but it cannot be much in the way of research — at least as it pertains to social science and health. The funding is simply not there to support the kind of broad-based inquiry into the social factors that influence health, illness and well-being anymore. We have, as I call it, reached ‘the Turn’.

The Turn is that point where the system changes irrevocably towards a new direction. It is like a ‘tipping point‘.  Dwindling numbers of social scientists working from funding from an institutional budget (e.g., tenure-stream faculty positions) + a doubling of the student cohort * half of the research dollars makes for rather toxic math. The Turn will fundamentally shape the way social science inquiry is done and the kind of questions that get asked. As question foci change, the quality of the research shifts, and the depth of inquiry is reduced, so too will the real impact that social science has on our health.

The gap between what we know, what we do, and what we can do to prevent illness, treat sickness, and promote well-being will grow.

Anecdotally speaking, this trend is not unique to the social sciences, but it is amplified in this domain. Social sciences in Canada and abroad are consistently funded at lower levels than that of basic research (see here for a starting point). But what is interesting is that many of the problems that we face within health require social science knowledge and research to address and social science — from knowledge translation, social network studies, technology adoption, innovation, management, to policy implementation and beyond .

Prevention of disease and chronic illness is often a social phenomenon (e.g., hand washing). Even the act of taking the best of basic science and translating it into practice or policy options (or other scientific research) is a social act that draws on social science research to execute. Social determinants of health are social in nature and require social science to understand their impact. Designing the policy and programmatic interventions that support creating a healthier society also falls to social science research and practice.

What will our health landscape look like without the ability to take what we know and translate it into action? Worse yet, what if we simply are unable to even know what to do because the research and evidence isn’t there in the first place to translate into anything? Without another turn towards something more positive in our research support, we are about to find out.

* Photo Turn the Page by Miaboas used under Creative Commons License from Deviant Art.

researchsocial systems

Advice for a Scholar Seeking a Life in Academia

Educating the Academic

The need to train professionals, educate citizens and advance knowledge of our world has never been less, yet the academic environment where this takes place is changing at a pace where its easy to question what one is to do to contribute to its mission. In this continuing series on life in academia, I offer some advice for those seeking to join its ranks as I step away from this life after two decades spent immersed in it. 

As a professor at a world-class research university in a dynamic and challenging field of study I have the privilege of meeting some of the brightest young minds around. The many roles that a professor can take — as educator, learner, scientist, advocate or activist – are highly attractive to many of these ‘bright minds’ so it is no surprise that I get asked a lot about how they can join the academy.

Not surprisingly, many of them aspire to become full-time professors. In this latest instalment of the Alien Shores series looking at the changing world of academia I provide some advice for those interested in getting into the profession that I am about to transition away from.

Shortly after I started my undergraduate studies I discovered psychology and found a “home” for the ideas I had about organizing with people and making a splash in the world. Soon after learning about the field and the opportunities I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a professor. Throughout my career I studied to be a professor, seeking to apprentice under my advisor, not just take direction. He was the Chair of my department and very generous with his time and knowledge, sharing much (within all appropriate and ethical bounds) about life in the academy. He gave me an unvarnished, true account of the ups and downs of academic life and prepared me as best he could for the challenges ahead. I studied and learned and watched everything and even then it only did me so much good. The field is changing so quickly and professorial life is transforming far faster than anyone thought.

So as I leave the profession in a full-time capacity, what can offer someone who, like me, wants to get into this line of work? To the scholar who seeks a life in academia I offer this:

1. The world outside of the university is a minefield: proceed with extreme caution and pack all the right equipment. I’ve been told by more than one leader in my field “you shouldn’t attempt community-based research until you have tenure“. They were right. But I am very glad I didn’t listen and tried it out, but then my risk tolerance is a bit skewed.In terms of logistics, CBR consumes vast amount of time, is poorly appreciated, nearly impossible to resource appropriately, has time schedules that wreak havoc on your life, and offers nowhere near the academic value commensurate with the energy involved. It is also fun, creative and connects you to the world in ways that traditional research can rarely do. When you are starting out it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons of doing this kind of work so my advice is, if you’re going to do CBR, get a team — a good one — and find collaborators with experience who can help you along. It is very hard to go it alone.

How about knowledge translation? If you want to get your knowledge into anything other than a report, academic journal or conference presentation, you are on your own unless KT is the explicit focus of your research. Why? It is hard, has little value inside the academy and you will not be given the supports to do it anywhere close to the way it deserves. At the same time, it too is fun. Among the highest honours I’ve been given is when people — the public, practitioners, or policy makers (even other academics) — tell me that they used something that I developed to solve a problem and it added value to their work. I care far less if people find my work clever, exquisitely crafted, or even “cutting edge” if it doesn’t lead to use at the end of the day.

Like CBR, find like minds and work together. Network and build on to the communities of people who are interested in your work and pay no heed to the naysayers. I’ve been told that the Internet had no future for helping people change behaviour and now regularly get challenged on my use of social media as a legitimate tool for KT. If you are reading this, then you already know that this medium works. Is it better than other tools? That depends and that’s why we do the work — to find out.

2. Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear from leaders in your institution or field. It’s too easy (and natural) to look at the head of an organization and take what they say as representing the direction they are heading. I would take the words of a senior director with a funding agency, university president, Dean or politician to heart and expect to see the changes that they spoke of. They aren’t lying, but the mechanism they use is flawed. In academia, nearly everything is directed through peer review, meaning that leadership might define the problems, but researchers determine the manner in which they are solved.

I recall sitting on a grant review panel where one of the criteria for a strong grant was a clear knowledge translation plan and seeing proposal after proposal being lauded as excellent with KT plans that included nothing more than a commitment to write the findings in a peer review journal or present at a conference. I spoke up and challenged these as weak examples of KT and the panel review coordinator agreed, but my peers saw that as appropriate and therefore the projects were favourably rated. Why would academics see it this way? See #1.

3. Your peers are your allies and your enemy. Innovation is nearly impossible by peer review. Despite challenges and commentaries on the weakness of the system, it persists and thrives in academia. Peer review has been challenged as sexist (PDF), dangerous, and almost antithetical to innovation. By its very nature, peer review is designed to judge research based on the best current evidence and the status quo, not by what could be. Indeed, to judge a proposal by imaginaries created from possible futures, rather than evidence is tantamount to academic misconduct in the peer review system.

If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market – Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal Of the American Medical Association (cited in Smith (2010))

A descriptive analysis of submissions to peer reviewed academic journals found little reason to believe that the editorial peer review process improves the quality of research presented in the literature. They conclude:

At present, little empirical evidence is available to support the use of editorial peer review as a mechanism to ensure quality of biomedical research. (Jefferson et al. (2007))

Much more research is needed on this, but the work done to date isn’t positive for those seeking to do things differently. At the same time, in actually doing research, peers can be extremely useful and even necessary to getting things done and done well (see point #1). Finding some intellectual or practice peers is a critical step towards warding off loneliness in a profession that can be extremely isolating if you let it. Many academics are saddled with being the only person that studies “X” in their department, providing few allies. Find your tribe, wherever they are in and out of academia or your department or institution. Joining professional societies and getting active in them is a great way to ‘hang with your peeps’ that have common interests and build your network.

Your peers are your allies, but they are also your enemies. And as the comic Pogo quoted:

I have met the enemy and he is us

4. It doesn’t get better (unless you make it so). The anti-bullying movement directed towards the gay and lesbian community is framed around the idea that it gets better. Maybe for them, but the same rules are far from true within academia. Too often have I see people drawn by the idea that things get better once you get a long-term contract, or a tenure-track position, or tenure, or a promotion, or a grant or a publication… and all of that is one big lie. I have watched people work just as hard if not more so with success and achieve little in the way of happiness or change in status. In my last two years  as a F/T professor I had over $2M in grants and published more than a dozen peer-reviewed papers, book chapters and monographs, while supervising a team of more than 23 full-time people. I got a teaching award*, a raise, and invitations to speak at keynote events. I was as successful as I ever was going to get and I was getting more miserable by the day.

Once the initial glean of the publication or successful grant application wears off, it is back to normal. This is traditional behavioural economics research and stands up in practice.

Why is this the case? Partly, because the degrees of difference between the work is so hard to perceive and the scales that people use to judge work is highly skewed, everything gets treated the same or we use conventional scales to measure unconventional products. In some places, a $500K contract is viewed less positively than a $100K peer-reviewed grant (see previous points for reasons), which is disheartening to see or experience. Also, because it is so difficult to judge the impact of a paper, they are all viewed in the same light so your Magnum opus might be treated the same as a paper you cared very little about. No one cares like you do and that is sometimes difficult to accept.

(* The teaching award was an exception, that did more to buoy my spirits than anything I’ve experienced in my career, largely because it was completely from the heart by a group of students and faculty who went out of their way to say “thanks”. That was one of those cases where simply being nominated meant the world to me. That I won was just icing).

5. Make small changes often, rather than rock the boat at once. When I became a professor, I knew from day #1 what kind of things I wanted to see different. That we have students — particularly graduate students — sitting in desks in rows listening to someone talk at them for hours is an afront to learning. Armed with educational theory,  two certificates in post-secondary teaching, experience teaching in secondary school, and years of experience as a student, I was going to change the classroom. Having done lots of research, studied knowledge translation, and worked in the community, I was ready to transform the way research could be done. In both cases, I jumped in full-tilt within the means I had available.

And then the system bit back.

It wasn’t so much that anyone or thing resisted, but rather massive change at once is stressful and it was hard to handle all the unexpected consequences of making major changes simultaneously. I study complexity and teach behaviour change so I should know better. If I was to start again, I’d still do it all — but just in smaller chunks over time. But then, I knew I didn’t have much time so that might be part of the problem.

6. Figure out who you want to love you, because it can’t be everyone. Jack of All Trades is a very lonely person inside the university walls, and is loved outside of them. Academia rewards (and punishes) the expert. When you are the right fit, your specialization is golden. “Great, we were looking for someone who studies this exact ______” is wonderful to hear when you are at the institution — maybe one of a handful in the world — that is looking to hire someone with that specific set of skills and interests. There is a lot of ego-stroking in academia when you first get called “an expert” and that is a big part of the problem. We want to be loved and respected, we’ve worked pretty damn hard to be good at something, and we want the recognition. Being an ‘expert’ gives some of this to us.

But if you want to have impact outside in the world, your expertise is going to be limited. That’s OK, but one has to remember that it is indeed rare when someone presents with a highly specialized topic that is widely accessible outside of academia. Broad-based skills are useful in the world beyond the academy and are easier for n0n-academics to comprehend. Thus, people either need to be skilled communicators outright or do the kind of work that is relevant to the community from the outset, using the language of that community. The public — or other professionals or policy makers — will love you, but not necessarily the academy. It’s reasons why fields like community development, program evaluation, social design, and health promotion have a hard go of it in academia: they comprehensive fields that tend towards breadth, not depth. Yet, these skills are needed desperately to solve a certain class of problems. Both specialization and broad-based scholarly skills are useful, its just they are not appreciated equally in all settings.

Telly Sevalas’ Kojak character would ask: “who loves ya, baby?“. You need to ask the same question and accept that it won’t be everyone.

7. You can learn a lot from the military. For many of us in academia, the thought of modeling ourselves after the military in any way is a bit unpalatable. Yet, if you can get past the armed conflict part of their work, military folk have a lot of lessons to teach us faculty. Here are some of them:

You cannot successfully fight on any more than two fronts at the same time. Thus, if you want to develop diversified program of research, it needs to have two major themes and no more. I had three major programs of research and it was too hard to manage. By program of research, I mean a series of linked projects operating under one general theme — the kind of thing that you will be asked to articulate when you apply for a career award or certain grants. I was too ambitious and excited and it was costly in terms of my mental health and wellbeing.

– “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (see points #3 and #8 to identify the enemy — hint: its you and me). You can’t plan your career with an expectation that it will unfold as you outline. Plans are just vague roadmaps to keep you pointed in a direction, not a vision of the exact future ahead. One has to approach the work as developmental in nature.

Protect your supply lines. From Ghengis Khan to Napoleon to Hitler, the lessons of protect your supply lines comes through in the history books (along with “don’t be a mass-murdering megalomaniac psychopath”). You need to plan for a long haul and make sure that you have the supplies — people, equipment, social support, and emotional fortitude — to operate in cycles that often go in years, not months. For example, taking on a student as an advisor means that you need to have the future supplies for the work itself (1-5 years or more of direct contact depending on the degree) and the years afterward when they apply to graduate school, jobs, grants and beyond.

Academia is designed for the tenured professor who is dedicating a life to the institution and the profession, but the reality is that there is little support for these roles. Thus, you are asked to supply a set of projects and studies that may require you respond to questions, publish papers, or support trainees and staff in various ways well beyond the funding cycle or your contract.

8. Determine how much your soul is worth and price it accordingly. Academia is not a job-space, it is a calling. If you’re thinking of clocking in 9-5 and leaving what you do at the office at the end of the day you are in the wrong business. Indeed, you probably won’t do good work because ideas come at all hours and they need attention when they ask for it. The freedom that comes from this job is a blessing and curse and how it plays out is really up to you. I personally have no problem diving in full-tilt in a period of flow to my work, but it needs to be done consciously and with permission. Otherwise, your friendships, love life, relationships with family and yourself will suffer, sometimes greatly. I know this firsthand.

While I dropped a lot of things from my sometimes unreasonable standards I did decide where my line was and stuck to it. There was one project that I steadfastly refused to rush, skimp on, reduce or limit and I held fast to that. There were a handful of people who I also would ensure they had my fullest attention whenever I met with them no matter what. These were staff or students whom I would give priority to over anything else and I hoped would never feel that I rushed them or ignored them. That was the price of my soul. When career demands started to haggle with me on this price most vociferously, I knew it was time to go. You need to know when your time to go is or be prepared to hold your price.

9. Treat your gas tank like you would handle winter driving conditions (always leave something in the tank). Going all out is something of myth — “give it 110%”, “winners never quit”, “give it your all”. It never stops. When I started, there were a few “quiet times of year” in the academic calendar. Usually early November, January and February, May and July. Now, that doesn’t exist. New Year’s Eve between 11pm and 1am is about it for quiet in the life of an academic. You can keep on going all the time if you allow work to drive your life and demand you use the full tank of gas. The emails rarely stop, the funding opportunities are never-ending, and there are always manuscripts to write, read and review. No matter what kind of joy you derive from your work, always leave something in reserve. Just like winter driving in Canada — you need a little gas left in the tank both for safety, but to ensure that your fuel lines don’t freeze (see supply lines issue above).

I, too often, gave it my all and suffered for it. By “all” I don’t mean hold back creative energy, passion, enthusiasm, or yourself, but rather make sure that you can replenish what you have in whatever way possible. Take a day (or a few) off, read for fun, or exercise (see next point). It need not be a lot, but do something to leave something in the tank and know when you’re getting low. You’ll always be asked to give more; resist.

10. Get out…a lot. Exercise. No really, do it. See movies, listen to music, watch plays, get physical with people in any way appropriate and possible. Use your body, mind and soul to extend outside of your work. See the world that you’re trying to influence even if that influence is a long way from the lab bench you work at or theoretical proposition you are putting forth. My biggest failings were letting work take over too often and neglecting the parts of myself that were important. Your important others — partners, children, friends, pets — will let you know in obvious or subtle ways that you’re neglecting them, but that message can only be heard if you are attentive. As for yourself? That’s even harder as the internal voice can be easily squelched or rationalized out. And if you lose yourself, you’re not much to anyone else.

What makes academic work so insidious from a self-care standpoint is that there are rewards for working hard – more grants, more publications, more recognition — but as you’ll not from #4, the yellow brick road only leads to Oz.

If you’ve read this far, you are either determined to learn about academia or in need of much more to read in your life. So if you are looking for something a little more inspirational, I would recommend the following:

PhD Comics. Yorge Cham’s delightful take on academia is so funny because it is so close to reality.

Dance Your PhD: There are a lot of efforts out there to make even the most arcane subject matter entertaining. Scour the web and delight in some of the most ridiculous things you’ll see tied to your dissertation topic and its a few minutes — or hours — well wasted.

An academic life is not for everyone, but it can be a wonderful space if you’re prepared. Do your research (on the job itself), be true to yourself and those close to you, and get supports. If you do and bring a smile to your day, you’ll probably do OK in this life.

education & learningresearchscience & technology

(Un)Building a Mystery: Peeking Behind the Curtain in the Academic Land of Oz

Mystery by UK Tara

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

Sarah McLachlan, Building a Mystery, from the album Surfacing

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 underfundingcharges 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.

Academia has been considered gang-like in its behaviour:

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 bookThe 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.

* Photo Mystery by UKTara used under Creative Commons Licence from Deviant Art.

** 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

education & learningresearch

The Alien Shores of Academia: Requiem for A Dream

Alien Shores, Alien Horizons

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:


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.

Stuck in the 80's? ...the 1880's?

** Photo Alien Shores, Alien Horizons by kr428 used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

design thinkinginnovationresearch

Design Thinking and Zombies

Stopping to sip the brains of sloppy design thinkers

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.

** Photo by Dance Photographer Brendan Lally used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

art & designevaluation

Visualizing Evaluation and Feedback

Seeing Ourselves in the Mirror of Feedback

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.


social mediasystems science

Social Networks: Beyond the Numbers

There's More to Connections Than Lines

Social networking research is becoming a hot topic as people discover the potential that mapping has for guiding policy and practice, however like many other “hot” research methods, there is a need to go beyond the numbers to make sense of what they really mean lest we create beautiful maps and have no place to go with them. 

The rise of social media applications and the ability for anyone to use simple tools to create, extend and shape their social graph with a mouse click or tap of the app has helped stoke interest in network research. Social networking methods are those that tend to favour quantitative development of maps and numerical representations of what a social network looks like. We are most often terribly ignorant of the role and position we play within a network so to see ourselves and peers positioned literally on a map can be revealing in more ways than one.

Between 2005 and 2006 my colleague Tim Huerta and I did a study that looked at the formation of a community of practice (CoP) in tobacco control through the lens of the social network and published a paper on this based on that work. Part of the study involved giving a group of people who were meeting face-to-face a survey and ask them about who they knew that influenced their work in the web-assisted tobacco interventions (the CoP’s focus), how well they knew the people they identified, and what kind of things they did together. This data was entered over the first night and analyzed for the next day’s meeting with the network map revealed (see summary here, full article here) .

While the map itself was generated through quantitative analysis, revealing patterns akin to the image above, it was the meaning that people gave to those connections that allowed this group to begin envisioning how they could leverage their untapped potential in the network to advance their interests as a community. This sense-making process is too often neglected in social network research and risks turning something meaningful (like a relationship) into a statistic that can more easily be dismissed — or misunderstood.

This week another social network study was published looking at tobacco control and the use of Twitter as a medium to support that. This study didn’t map the network per se, but rather looked at the type of people in the network and what the content of the messages that were shared within it. This represents another type of social networking study where the researchers aim to peer into the activities of a group of people who are interconnected and describe from afar what they see and who they think they see. This has some utility for those wanting to delve into areas where there is little known (such as Twitter and smoking cessation), but can also mislead people if used improperly. Networks are dynamic, with influence shifting and participants activity modulating greatly within its lifespan and because of this, cross-sectional data poses the risk of capturing a slice of activity that might not reflect the whole.

Which slice do you want?

Consider the analogy of slicing a watermelon sideways and doing so at the end, rather than in the middle: if you love watermelon, you want the middle slice because it’s bigger and richer than the end. The same might be true for social networking activity.

The tendency to want to produce network maps using numbers alone to explain them is highly problematic. Even Facebook has decided it will give greater priority to what people do in the network, rather than how big the network is as evidenced by the push to add Skype-powered video to its service this week. Facebook knows that their value is determined less by how many friends you have, but more about how you truly connect: photosharing, comments, game-playing.

True, this can all be quantified, but they are going a little further beyond the numbers. The Facebook example provides an interesting example of potential social network studies that could look at the type and content of the photos shared, how people have reacted to them, and what kind of social movement has been formed by the content created for and shared through that network. If you want to leverage a network for social change and good, this is the kind of stuff you need to focus on, not just the total numbers of people involved.

Powerful social network research is as much about having a good statistician as it is an anthropologist and together, they need to have the story that comes from it, woven together by the users and a good storytelling host.

*** Watermelon photo by Rameez Sadlkot used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr. Network image used under licence.