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Providing better routes for scientists in businesses to enter academia might encourage scientists in academia to move to businesses?

Recently I submitted feedback on MoRST’s research priorities document.

Expressed in this document, in Sir Peter Gluckman’s earlier speeches and elsewhere is a desire to have more scientists in New Zealand (NZ) move to be involved in businesses.

My instant thought was “and back again”.

In a recent conversation with a scibling Shaun Hendy the issue of returning to academia from a commercial position arose.

It is well-known, in NZ at least, that moving to commercial work from academic work is nearly always a death sentence to an academic career, almost entirely because of one issue: academic credit is almost solely measured in terms of academic publications and it’s generally very hard to maintain producing academic research papers within a business setting.

Naturally, this makes academic researchers reluctant to leave. Why risk changing if things are OK now? What if the business folds, where will I be then?

One thing that might give academic researchers more confidence to leave the university to join businesses is feeling assured that there is a reasonable means of returning. The idea, of course, is that hopefully once they’ve left, they’ll be content there and the means of returning will have just be an inducement to give it a go. In NZ, as far as I know, this is only done by granting permanent staff members special leave.

This might serve permanent staff well, especially more senior staff that the university has more interest in, but it’s little use to those without a permanent position or for those who moved to commercial settings before these schemes were introduced.

A key problem, to my mind and at least in New Zealand, is that academic “credit” is measured in academic publications, not if the person is knowledgeable in an area per se.

The emphasis on academic papers as the sole measure of “credit” serves as a “lock out” device: it locks out those with expertise, but few academic papers. It’s excluding talented people from moving where their talent takes them. There will be cases of those in commercial settings who have projects that are better moved to an academic setting.

Those permanent university staff on special leave probably already have a workable solution, others might need a more inclusive solution.

One way of focusing thinking about this is to consider how businesses select staff. They eliminate poor candidates through consideration of their CVs, but the final selections are usually made in direct interviews.

Permanent positions in research institutes and universities are assessed this way, but I am not aware of any research grants that are assessed this way. Since you cannot easily (or cannot at all) get a “soft funded” position without a grant, this blocks movement from the commercial sector to academia for most people. With that it makes real the concern that a move to business from academia is usually a one-way ticket (or at least limits bidirectional movement to those who both hold permanent staff positions and obtain special leave).

To encourage movement from academia to business, perhaps grants should focus more on:

  • Is the person talented with appropriate interests?
  • What is the merit of the project?
  • Are they knowledgeable in and have a track record in the area demanded by the project? – as judged by work done, not by research papers alone. (Research papers are only one measure of work and should not be the sole or most important measure of credit.)
  • Interactive dialogue with short-listed candidates

Before people protest, I am not suggesting that this be world-wide practice or that this has to apply to all grants or that this is the definitive word on my thinking. I am just “tossing out there” that perhaps NZ has an opportunity to exploit that we are small country and are thus able to judge people directly, and with it produce a more flexible and inclusive funding system.

Perhaps with the increased emphasis on movement between academia and business it is now in academia’s interest to provide some grants that judge applicants in a more inclusive and direct way and for these grants cast off a restrictive focus on publications and at-a-distance assessment?


PS: A more focused alternative, but one that I think is weaker, is special-purpose “re-entrant” fellowships for those moving from commercial setting or maternity leave or the like back into academia.