5th November 2012: Michael Mann’s Sources of Social Power

Coauthor Ben Eltham bought a copy of Michael Mann‘s Sources of Social Power: Volume 2 (1760-1914) to a meeting on Friday afternoon.


Mann’s book is a dense, scholarly study and comparative analysis of the modern nation-state system that blends economics, history, sociology, and political science.


It’s also the kind of life-long, indepth research that is now impossible to do under Australian research and publications metrics. Research administrators interpret these metrics as Taylorist outputs: they often don’t consider the long-term investment needed to develop such research programs.


Mann has just released Volume 3 (1890-1945); and Volume 4 (1945-2011) is due out at the end of November.

28th October 2012: Australia In The Asian Century White Paper

Australia’s Gillard Government has released its Australia In The Asian Century white paper.


You can read Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s comments here. The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen has some ‘initial’ analysis here.


Ben Eltham has some comments on the white paper for New Matilda here. We’ll mention it in an academic paper planned for the Australian Journal of Political Science.

28th October 2012: Negotiating Conference Travel

Yesterday, I had to cancel two papers/presentations with coauthor Ben Eltham at the International Studies Association‘s annual convention in San Francisco in April 2013. We both were unable to get access to research incentive and travel funding for the ISA conference. Some lessons:


1. Negotiate your initial contract carefully. Your university employer makes a valuation decision on your career if it gives you an Academic Level versus a HEW Administrator contract. Academic Level roles are governed by the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALs) and can access research incentive and conference travel funding. HEW Administrator roles often cannot and don’t have as clear pathways for funding access: they are not considered researchers even if they have an existing track record. These access and resource allocative differences can shape your career and create a ‘success to the successful’ dynamic that is needed to become an academic superstar (Sherwin Rosen). Get access to research funds in writing and in your contract: an email or verbal promise often won’t survive a staff change or a cost reduction initiative.


2. Negotiate some personal discretionary funds. A secret of successful professoriate is that they negotiate a salary loading component during their initial contract negotiations that are personal discretionary funds. This enables conference travel independent of budget, staff or organisational changes.


3. Situate the conference within a long-term research program. University senior management have a ‘value for money’ philosophy. They are interested in grant and journal publication outputs rather than conference papers. You need to show in your conference travel application how the conference will build your international visibility (an MSALs criterion); how the papers will lead to high-level journal publications; and how you will build networks that could become collaborative teams or mentors for competitive grant applications. Be strategic about this: don’t just go to an international conference because of the exotic locale. You are instead reframing the ‘value for money’ philosophy as a strategic level investment in your research career, and with up-front, observable research outputs. Know what the economic value added of your research program is to your university. Link your research program to university areas of distinctive specialisation or strategic investment priority. Use the pre-panel discussions to find out what other national and international researchers and research teams are doing in your area.


4. Get an institutional champion. Explain to your boss or supervisor why the conference is important to your research program and overall career. Get their advice and help in dealing with the institutional paperwork for conference travel funding. Having an institutional champion means you won’t feel isolated and you have someone who can help to make the ‘research case’ to senior decision-makers if needed. Your professional association might also have a conference travel fund that you should apply for.


5. Develop healthy psychological barriers from your organisation’s problems and self-narrative. The rejection of conference travel funding might relate to other factors such as budget austerity, misaligned incentives (which can involve decision rights and moral hazard), or a change in research funding priorities. You need to differentiate yourself and your research program from the “struggle” narrative (Dr. Jose M. Ramos) that occurs in organisational reform initiatives. You likely did not cause institutional debt or the failure to invest in the necessary infrastructure and strategic portfolios — and you can be part of the change management initiative. Don’t take the funding rejection personally: practice mindfulness techniques and try to be psychologically resilient.


6. Write the papers anyway. If you don’t get conference travel funding then reframe this as a self-limit to work around. Think like a New Wave (1978-84) musician: if you decide to self-fund the conference travel then ensure your financial affairs and taxation records are in order. I liked Ben Eltham’s advice: “Let’s use this energy to write write a couple of shit-hot peer-reviewed papers.”

20th October 2012: The Big Chill



Australia’s budget austerity means the Australian Research Council (ARC) might freeze or put on hold all competitive grant funding rounds and awards. Australian academics are upset.


For two decades the ARC has been one of Australia’s most important funding agencies for competitive research grants. ARC funding success provides career prestige and national visibility for an academic researcher or collaborative research team. The ARC’s Discovery and Linkage rounds have a success rate of 17-19% whilst the DECRA awards for Early Career Researchers (ECR), or first five years after PhD completion, has been 12%. An ARC grant is a criterion that many promotions committees use for Associate Professor and Professor positions. This competitiveness means that a successful ARC grant can take a year to write. The publications track record needed for successful applicants can take five to seven years to develop.


The ARC’s freeze decision is symptomatic of a deeper sea change in Australian research management: the rise of ‘high finance’ decision-making more akin to private equity and asset management firms.


Richard Hil’s recent book Whackademia evoked the traditional, scholarly Ivory Tower that I remember falling apart during my undergraduate years at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. Hil’s experience fits a Keynesian economic model of universities. Academics got tenure for life or switched universities rarely. There was no ‘publish or perish’ pressure. There was a more collegial atmosphere with smaller class sizes. Performance metrics, national journal rankings, and research incentive schemes did not exist. The “life of the mind” was enough. Universities invested in academics for the long-term because they had a 20-30 year time horizon for research careers to mature. There was no intellectual property strategy to protect academics’ research or to create different revenue streams.


‘High finance’ decision-making creates a different university environment to Hil’s Keynesian Ivory Tower. Senior managers believe they face a hyper-competitive, volatile environment of disruptive, low-cost challengers. This strategic thinking convinced University of Virginia’s board chair Helen Dragas to lead a failed, internal coup d’etat against president Teresa Sullivan with the support of hedge fund maven Paul Tudor Jones III. The same thinking shapes the cost reduction initiatives underway at many Australian universities. It creates a lucrative consulting market in higher education for management consulting firms. It influences journalists who often take the public statements made at face value instead of doing more skeptical, investigative work.


The ARC has played a pivotal role in the sectoral change unfolding in higher education. Its journal rankings scheme the Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) provided the impetus for initial organisational reforms and for the dominance of superstar economics in academic research careers. ERA empowered research administrators to learn from GE’s Jack Welch and to do forced rankings of academics based on their past research performance. ARC competitive grants and other Category 1 funding became vital for research budgets. Hil’s professoriate are now expected to mentor younger, ECR academics and to be ‘rain-makers’ who bring in grant funding and other research income sources. Academics’ reaction to the ARC’s freeze decision highlights that the Keynesian Ivory Tower has shaky foundations.


The make-or-buy decision in ‘high finance’ changes everything. Hil’s Ivory Tower was like a Classical Hollywood film studio or a traditional record company: invest upfront in talent for a long-term payoff. Combining ERA’s forced rankings of academic staff with capital budgeting and valuation techniques creates a world that is closer to private equity or venture capital ‘screening’ of firms. Why have a 20-to-30 time-frame for an academic research career when you can buy-in the expertise from other research teams? Or handle current staff using short-term contracts and ‘up or out’ attrition? Or your strategy might change in several years to deal with a volatile market environment? Entire academic careers can now be modeled using Microsoft Excel and Business Analyst workflow models as a stream of timed cash-flows from publications, competitive grants, and other sources. Resource allocative decisions can then be considered. ARC competitive grants and research quality are still important — but ‘high finance’ decision-making has changed research management in universities, forever.


Today’s young academics face a future that may be more like auteur film directors or indie musicians: lean, independent, and self-financing.


Photo: missdarlene/Flickr.

2nd October 2012: HERDC Categories

Every year, university research offices compile annual data on research publications for the Australian Government. The Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) exercise includes Australian Government categories for peer reviewed books, book chapters, journal articles, and edited conference papers. There are also recognised non-categories for items like original creative works, expert commentary, and patents.  Universities receive research funding from the Australian Government which may be used to fund internal, competitive grant schemes and discretionary funds for individual research accounts. There is usually one to two year’s delay from HERDC data collection to Australian Government funds allocation.


I looked through the HERDC categories whilst beginning to compile my 2012 research publications. One aspect stood out: HERDC appears to have no category — apart from O for Other Publications Category — for internet or online publications. Academics’ work for The Conversation appears to best fit category N for Expert Commentary. HERDC thus focuses on traditional definitions of research publications; it ignores how contemporary scholars actually work; and it overlooks or minimises the internet’s original design goal to share (scholarly) information.

7th August 2012: Are Universities Dead?


My brother Cam Burns pointed me to the above talk by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. Cam suggested “universities are going to be replaced.”


I’m not so sure. Universities act as credential mechanisms for many careers. HR gatekeepers and recruiters still look for specific degree pathways to Masters level. There’s a lot of good knowledge in top university programs and in academic journals — although this is controlled by international publishing conglomerates. Access and diffusion controls mean you won’t find this knowledge on Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, or in information marketing courses. It’s mostly locked up in proprietary databases and publisher sites.


Instead, universities have become what sociologist Peter Frase calls “rentism“: a stratified, positional hierarchy that uses intellectual property regimes (which academics do not control) to enforce artificial scarcities of knowledge (which Graham points out the internet and entrepreneurial networks have changed), and that stratifies productive researchers from teaching-only academics and administrators.


Universities are responding to a volatile international environment and high cost structures by attempting to create more entrepreneurial, organisational structures. Academics are persuaded to become rain-makers for competitive grant funding and industry collaborative partnerships, whilst research administrators act in ‘guard roles’.


Cam was partly right: If you start young, have risk capital and networks, are successful, and can scale up, then you might earn billions without an academic degree.

5th August 2012: Malcolm Gladwell on Slack Arbitrage

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell on slack arbitrage:


For most of us, slack—the gap between what is possible, under conditions of absolute effort, and actual performance—is unavoidable. We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we can’t. . . . This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. . . . Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. By custom, we disparage the idleness of the idle rich. We should encourage it. It is our best chance of taking their place. . . . We pretend that meritocracies—our favored word for modern competitions—are contests of equals. They aren’t. Some people can stay close only by making painful choices, and, as the standards of competition rise, those choices grow more painful still.



Slack arbitrage is a function of a ‘winner takes all’ tournament system in workplaces and status-driven socio-economic competitiveness. Elites control capital assets, have higher income streams, are rent-seeking, and can extract greater value. This creates competitive selection pressures on those in the middle who aspire to become a new elite.


This upward dynamic has existed in academia for at least the past decade. Gladwell’s “painful choices” can involve extra role responsibilities; which peer-reviewed journals to target; time spent on competitive grant proposals; and attending events to gain commercial and government partner investigators. Absolute effort is given — and actual performance is institutionally evaluated — in pursuit of the possible. Academia thus begins to more closely resemble the ‘up or out’ competitiveness of making partner in management consulting firms.


In the past, slack arbitrage in academia occurred at certain career points: the mid-career academic who has worked out how to ‘game’ the workload points system; or the professor who flies under the radar and keeps to their PhD students. Now slack arbitrage is under attack from a performance-based management culture: everyone must work hard; and upward mobility is restricted to academics who have a ‘success for the successful‘ dynamic.


Gladwell could have read Tom DeMarco‘s Slack: Getting Past Burnout and the Myth of Total Efficiency (New York: Broadway, 2002).

3rd August 2012: 53 Minutes With Kenny Loggins

Scott Brown’s New York profile of Kenny Loggins is revealing (thanks to The Reformed Broker):


Loggins started his career “spoiled” by the early success of Loggins & Messina. At 22, he surfed the instant fame (“People showed up singing ‘Danny’s Song’; our tour was really profligate”) and left the details to the pencil pushers. “Later, I found out that accountants want you to lose money on the tour because they want you to keep touring—their percentage stays the same,” he says. “If you think stardom is the answer to your problems, you’re sadly mistaken. And if you can do something other than this, you should. I watch American Idol, with all these kids who think being a star is going to solve their problems, and I think, You fucking idiot. Stardom is good if you want a nice table and a ticket to a show. It’s not a free pass around all the problems of being human. And it can cripple you if it hits too young.”


You only get a certain time period in academia to establish yourself as a leading, competitive researcher. The Early Career Researcher (ECR) phase — the first five years after PhD conferral — are critical for journal articles and grant funding agencies. In that time period, you need to be mentored on the academic game; you need to conceptualise a research program; and you need to know what other national and international teams in your area are up to. Don’t leave the university research metrics or intellectual capital/property protection to the pencil pushers. Learn from Loggins: establish the necessary structures to build a long-term, productive research career.

31st July 2012: Slow Recruiting

Etsy chief executive officer Chad Dickerson:


Recruiting too slowly for key positions can be a liability in a fast-paced industry, but the larger point is that the way you and your company treat people over longer periods of time has more impact on your recruiting efforts than anything else.


This is something the higher education sector has to learn. It is a key reason why some young researchers are leaving academia for more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Initially, they are recruited for 3-to-5 year positions and possibly for long-term research track roles. However, young researchers also now face significant institutional barriers: high entrance requirements for entry-level roles (which include a PhD, teaching experience, and publications’ track record’); a preference for short-term contracts and casual positions; recruitment decisions that are often now driven by cost reduction economics; an incentives system that can block individual efforts; and the lack of a long-term strategy for intellectual capital and property. How you treat academic scholars over their employment period affects the productivity of their research programs. Dickerson is right that slow recruiting can underpin a long-term strategy for human resources management — not necessarily the mindset that many universities have, at the moment.

11th July 2012: Star Academics & Research Funding

Superstar economics rules Hollywood and the art world. In academia, it means that a small group of academics are heavily cited, get ‘fast-track’ promotions, and receive competitive research grants. The United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust has reinforced superstar economics and its ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic in a recent decision:


To the consternation of many, Walport’s charity has abolished all funding for research projects or programmes. Instead this cash now goes to individuals, with far less prescription about what they do with it. “Budgets are often larger for investigators as we want to fund people generously to pursue new directions without restraint,” [Kevin] Moses explains.


Wellcome Trust’s decision means significant fallout in academia. Early and mid-career researchers face barriers to research funding. Collaborative research teams are minimised. Publication track records on your curriculum vitae become more important. The decision strengthens individual researchers and their cross-institutional performance ‘portability’ (which leads to the ‘poaching’ of leading researchers and their teams as an answer to the ‘make or buy’ decision). It also cuts the funding that institutions extract from successful grants — thus undermining the strategy of relying on competitive research grant income as a variable cashflow to diversify from student fees and government funding. Wellcome’s decision has parallels with the rise-and-fall of the independent producer in Hollywood, from 1967-75, during the demise and renewal of the Hollywood studio system.


Research Funding Limited To Star Academics (The Guardian)