Professors and Their Grant Targets

Suicide of a researcher leads to more discussion of financial expectations on professors at British universities.

June 11, 2015
 

Grant income targets for individual academics, which have been blamed for the suicide of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London, exist in some form at about one in six British universities, a survey suggests.

Times Higher Education submitted a Freedom of Information request to all U.K. universities, asking whether they set such targets. Of the 93 that responded, 11 said that at least some of their departments, faculties, institutes or schools set individual grant-winning goals for at least some individuals. Those are Imperial, Queen Mary University of London, Abertay University, Plymouth University, Robert Gordon University and the Universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, East Anglia, Glasgow, Greenwich and Leeds.

However, Aberdeen said that its “expectations” were only intended to inform conversations about “which aspects (if any) of an individual’s career might need more attention or support to develop.” Glasgow said that it only used grant income targets -- among other metrics -- in promotion criteria for senior lecturers and above; Plymouth and East Anglia said that they only “encouraged” academics to bring in the amounts specified; and Greenwich, Abertay, Robert Gordon, Dundee and Leeds said that targets were set on a case-by-case basis.

Another five institutions -- the Universities of Surrey, Bath, Ulster, Bradford and Warwick -- claimed that the requested information was commercially sensitive. But, as Times Higher Education reported last year, principal investigators in Warwick Medical School and its School of Life Sciences were identified for potential layoffs if their grant income fell below a certain threshold (for medics who are principal investigators, an average of £90,000, or about $140,000, over four years). If all five institutions have targets, that would increase the total that do have them up to 16, or 17 percent of the total. Another 12 institutions said that they set grant income targets at institutional, faculty or departmental level, making a total of 28 universities -- 30 percent of the total -- that have targets of some sort.

Review at Imperial

Grant income targets came under scrutiny when it was revealed that Grimm, a professor of toxicology at Imperial who took his own life in September last year, had been struggling to secure the amount specified for an Imperial professor.

A spokeswoman for Imperial said that a team led by Stephen Richardson, associate provost for institutional affairs, is reviewing its “application and consistency of approach in the use of performance metrics” and is expected to submit its recommendations to “a senior group” led by James Stirling, Imperial’s provost, this summer.

Imperial generally expects income from each academic’s teaching and research to “cover the costs of their employment.” Some departments impose “minimum performance standards” that “may include a general statement of the amount of income that a researcher… might normally be expected to generate, but with the proviso that such amounts are a guideline only and that precise amounts will vary according to an individual’s circumstances.” Those “at risk” of not meeting the standards “may be set objectives … including for grant income.”

Queen Mary and King’s College London have both run into controversy in recent years for using metrics, including grant income, to select academics for redundancy. King’s did not answer Times Higher Education's question in its FOI response.

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, said that grant income targets -- especially those deemed “typical” rather than minimum standards -- discriminated against inexpensive research, incentivized misconduct and encouraged “overstretched” staff to sign up to more projects than they could properly oversee or write up.

Jenny Pickerill, professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, said that, in her experience, “aspirational targets” at departmental level or higher were “productive in signaling… the need to secure external funding.” But individual targets were less sensible.

“I was once set a target of securing £35,000 [$54,000] in a year. In a panic, I submitted 12 applications and pieced together several small grants to reach the goal. But I published little and ended up with an eclectic set of research projects,” she said.

“Grant success is not achieved by working harder, or even necessarily by submitting more applications, and internal peer review has not particularly helped. To require staff to submit grants is one thing: to hold them to targets of securing funds is to reward the lucky and unproductively pressure the rest.”

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