Nothing like a jaunty jacket to get through existential job angst

Hello! I am not dead, just monstrously hungover from having stayed up last night with Partner Piglet to watch the election, fuelled by pie, ice-cream and a bucket of whisky. And well done US readers for getting Obama back for another 4 years! USA! USA! I am very very fond of you all, with your tendencies to put cinnamon in everything, your countrymen who created ‘The Wire’ and your ability to embrace and produce spectacle like no-one else. If the gods smile on it, I would love to spend some time living in there in my post-academic life. However, a bucket of whisky and the US voting system do not easy bedfellows make – trying to make sense of the difference between the electoral college votes and the popular votes and who was actually winning as we chugged our delicious bourbon was a challenge.

But hey, the UK can do massive confusing opaque systems of power too – for it is, indeed, the time of the Research Excellence Framework, or REF to its enemies. For non-UK readers, this is the system which comes around every 4 years  to assess the quality of research that is going on in UK universities, and thus the amount of tasty money that they receive from the government.  In theory REF is a nice objective way of determining which institutions are producing excellent work which impacts on the real world and rewarding them accordingly.

In practice, it is hell.

Everything in the UK university lifecycle cranks up to this. If you’ve got an academic post, enormous amounts of pressure will be put on you to publish enough and in the ‘right’ places – and remember, this happens every 4 years, not just as a milestone on the way to the tenure-track or tenure itself. In theory, REF looks at research outputs in their own right, not where they get published. In practice, it’s all about getting published in the right journals (as defined by your department) – yes, impact factors are a pile of rubbish which discriminate against interdisciplinary research, but if your department says “Publish in the Journal of Gigantic Pineapple Theory, or else”, then that’s where you try to publish.

If you’re an early career researcher in search of a permanent post or even a postdoc, it’s even worse – your job prospects depend so much on at what point in the REF cycle you got your PhD. As with any metric-based system, the REF gets gamed – rather than relying on the excellent work which of course they’ve been nurturing over the preceding time period, universities go into severe Karl Rove panic mode in the run-up to the REF and try to ‘buy in’ as many rockstar academics as they can to boost their funding. Some of this is outright poaching, but much of it goes through the job ads so if you’re a baby academic, forget it – all anyone wants over the 18-month run-up is ‘internationally excellent publications’, proof you can pull in lumps of increasingly rare grant money, and possibly a tap-dancing unicorn too.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that, beyond being rubbish for academics, the reward system at the heart of REF is intrinsically flawed. Theoretically, universities are incentivised to nurture their faculty, encouraging them to produce world-class work for which they are all rewarded. In practice, universities get rewarded for buying research in – not producing it. This absolute break between the work we do and how we all benefit from it – or not – is one of the many reasons I am packing my bags.

So that’s what’s been happening in Piglet Towers. I’m delighted that Obama has another 4 years in power – although I think his leadership has been far from perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the howling horrors of the GOP. I hope that by the next election rolls around I’ll be far from the maw of REF.