Saturday 28 June 2014

The Danger of Management by Metrics

The Metric-Measured Man
There was depressing news from Kings earlier this month. The University plans to cut 120 academic posts in the Schools of Medicine and Biomedicine (from a total of 777)  in order to fund new building. Chillingly, the redundancies will be decided by two metrics: research income and teaching hours.

Using metrics is somewhat fraught at the best of times, but is positively toxic when jobs depend on it. The idea of having stated targets is something that all universities have toyed with and many have implemented. There are clear examples where these targets have had a real effect, focussing minds and ratcheting up activity. But at what cost? Anecdotally the morale in these metric-driven universities makes Airstrip One look positively Arcadian.

Motivation by fear is not the way to get the best from people. I was speaking to someone who worked at Pfizer in Sandwich before it closed down in early 2011. Each year, researchers were graded on their annual research output, and those who were on the lower grades for two consecutive years were dismissed. The grades were fitted to a curve to ensure that every year a certain percentage of researchers always had the lower grades. The previous year's performance was not taken into account, meaning that researchers were under continuous pressure to produce results.

Rather than increasing productivity and excellent science, it had the opposite effect. Game-playing and politicking blossomed, and people allegedly joined random committees to be sitting next to the seat of power, or took up jogging and football to be in with the right people. Desperation set in at the lab too, and the potential efficacy of tentative early results was disproportionately trumpeted. I think the final axe came as something of a relief.

That is not to say that metrics do not have their place. It is important and necessary to understand how we compare, to recognise the state of the art, and note how similar academics in comparator institutions are doing. Isolation and the assumption that what you do is good enough is no longer acceptable. But tying metrics to performance review is dangerous, and tying it to job security is suicidal.

Academic research is not like selling insurance or cars. Academics know what they need to do in order to further their research, build their profile, and advance the parameters of knowledge. They are essentially neurotic, and are perfectly able to put themselves under pressure to perform without any help from managers or administrators. What they need in order to do so is security and time. What Kings is doing is taking away both of these and by so doing so are shooting themselves in the foot. Sir Robin Murray quoted a colleague as saying 'the whole thing is making me wonder whether King's College London is the right place for me, or whether I should look for green pastures elsewhere, as indeed many other people are.'

Similar comments following the Guardian piece show that others are thinking the same, and that both academics and students are now spending more time worrying about their situation, signing petitions and striking than they are doing research. And that's not an environment in which world class research will grow.

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