NEUCHATEL — On academic discussion boards, there was a lot of talk last fall about research colleague Stefan Grimm. A medical professor at the Imperial College London, Grimm committed suicide at the age of 51. His death has sparked a debate because it is symptomatic of the excesses of a management model that has established itself over the past few years at universities, particularly at those aiming to achieve top international rankings.
The Imperial College is regularly ranked among the world's top 10 universities. As such, a professor such as the late Stefan Grimm was expected to bring in at least 200,000 pounds ($305,000) per year in competitive research funds. He was also expected to acquire at least one research grant a year. Having only accumulated 135,000 pounds ($206,000) in 2014, his supervisor put extra pressure on him and was trying to push him out. That was despite the fact that the quality of what he published brought in significant funds to the university.
Academia's now a business
In these havens of academic excellence, the aim now is not just to accumulate publications and citations but also to reach a substantial "turnover." In an email discovered after his death, Grimm wrote, "This is no longer a university but a business with a tiny group at the top enjoying it […], while the others are squeezed out like lemons to obtain money."
At such institutions, quality is determined by highly questionable rankings that are no longer contested by anyone, and by the sums the researchers manage to raise. Administration is often entrusted to managers who don't know about scientific research and go about their work as if they're running a company. Knowledge simply becomes merchandise that is frantically assessed by the administration and the researchers themselves: numbers of citations, research amounts, and the "impact factors" of the journals in which the research results are published. Researchers, including professors, are supposed to work 12 to 15 hours per day like hamsters on their wheel, their eyes fixed on the meter.
This logic is not at work at every university with the same radicalism as at the Imperial College, but it seems to be advancing inexorably. At some Swiss universities, for instance, the minimal "revenue" required is roughly the same as what Grimm was expected to generate. During international conferences, sessions are increasingly being organized in which researchers talk about the pressure they are under. There have been calls for "slow science." The aim is not to contest the role of selection and competition in a scientific career but to preserve livable working conditions for researchers and promote conditions for better knowledge.
This evolution, of course, isn't happening in just the academic world. It's found just about everywhere, as much in the private sector as in the public sector. The tragic death of a university professor only illuminates the fact that few sectors and employees are now safe. The job of university professor once represented what was generally perceived as the safest and most stable job in the world. But that's becoming history.
Science is undergoing a vocational crisis. Natural sciences and engineering in particular are struggling to attract young people. But in such a context, their reluctance is understandable. We prefer constantly highlighting the exception — the researcher selected among thousands of others, obtaining the highest research credits — instead of thinking about the rule and the excesses of this system. But it's safe to say that the campaigns to attract young people to scientific careers will remain futile until there is serious reflection about these systemic problems.
*Ola Söderström is a professor of geography at Switzerland's University of Neuchâtel.