Part two; How much time do we have, and how should we use it?

As researchers and teachers at a Swedish university our job is to do research, teach and interact with the public, the latter called the third task. Governmental rules and regulations, however, add an increasing administrative workload, unwanted chores, and distractions, from our actual job description. This workload is more demanding and regulations tighter for governmental authorities, like universities, than for e.g. foundations and private companies. Neither private nor governmental funding bodies that finance our research are likely to be particularly willing to provide their resources to finance other tasks imposed on us, like administration and implementation of all the rules and regulations decided by the government. Try inserting a budget post concerning institutional administration in an application to a research foundation! The foundation will respond that funds were donated for research purposes and may not be used for overhead or administration. That is in fact the guiding principle of many foundations even to the point that they will fund researchers directly with a stipend as opposed to letting funds be reduced by institutional overhead. These costs should, according to the funding bodies, be taken care of by the government.

Research group leaders are very much involved with many tasks besides the ones that should be core activities. Consider fire inspections, safety inspections, chemicals’ administration, salary negotiations, financial reports, fighting the bureaucracy that cause stalling of for example simple items like dealing with key or ID-cards, or moving of equipment from one room to the next, purchasing problems due to inadequate governmental procurement (this could be the topic of a separate op-ed), etc. etc. In parallel, we are trying to stay in the forefront of research, and educating students. Time spent on these imposed tasks are largely unfinanced by the government who requests them. Often, Ph.D. students and post docs, who are in fact frequently financed by external and private donations to do research also have to spend their precious time performing some of these tasks, that will not give them any credit in their CVs. The number of research groups with state funded administrative/technical personnel has declined to almost nothing over the past 20 years.
Will this extra workload and distractions affect the ability to e.g. spend time to educate and interact with the public, i.e. perform the third task? There is almost certainly a negative impact on execution of the third task due to the chronophagy caused by administrative efforts and the fact that the third task is the one that can be left out with least penalty career-wise.

What if all funding bodies started to request detailed hourly reports (as in EU grants, although there you can actually request funding for overhead and administration), to certify that donated research money is used only on research, and decline funding requests towards administrative chores? That would really take us into a self-perpetuating destructive maelstrom. Bob Harris at CMM wrote a previous op-ed on the issue of time; “THE ACADEMICS BIGGEST UNTRUTH – I DON’T HAVE TIME!” Bob wrote that different tasks require different priorities and should be planned for accordingly. This is very true, but the point is that some tasks should not even have to be included in our priority lists. One solution would be to move faster and faster, because according to the Special Theory of Relativity, time slows down with speed… A more realistic solution however, is to do what larger companies do, to hire people who are specifically responsible for the increasing administrative chores, people actually trained for the job, and to make sure they are paid by the government rather than research funding agencies. The current Swedish trend to publish less high impact papers may then be reversed, making it possible to stay competitive internationally while having time to interact with the general public.

Tomas Ekström and Martin Schalling

Ekström Schalling

Photos: Vasan Kandaswami, Ulf Sirborn

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