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Scientists do NOT have time to do science

Working conditions — Professors and associate professors only use about one third of their time on research. Administration and the search for funding is eating up a growing portion of their time.

A scientist should logically be spending most of his time doing science. Or what?

No. Apparently not at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and not at the country’s other universities, where administrative duties and application form writing eat away at the time of academic staff.

21 per cent of the work time of professors and associate professors in the natural sciences and technical areas is used on research according to a study from 2016 by the trade union IDA. . In turn, they use 26 per cent – every fourth hour at work – on administration and funding applications.

“We see destitution among the great middle strata of associate professors, that nowadays neither have the time for research, nor the funding to buy the necessary equipment and materials.”

Thomas Vils Pedersen, staff representative for academic staff at UCPH.

In a survey from 2014 the Think tank DEA concluded that the two groups of employees do research an average 35 and 37 per cent of their work time respectively, but this includes participation in conferences and supervision of PhD students.

Regardless of which numbers are correct, this is too little time working on what should be one of the two primary tasks at a university, says Thomas Vils Pedersen, staff representative for academic staff at UCPH.

“It’s something that we experience as a growing problem. The main tasks are research and teaching, so working hours should ideally be divided 50-50 between the two,” he says.

Most applications are in vain

According to the staff representative, the problem is that an increasing proportion of research funding is distributed in competition between researchers, while universities receive less funding that they themselves can dispose of. Furthermore, research councils and private foundations provide more money to large projects and to the top talents in research, according to data from the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFF).

This means that only 15 per cent get their projects approved when applying through DFF.

Elite runs away with all the research money

There is money for the ‘top of the pops’ among researchers, and for the new young talent, but no one wants to support senior associate professors and assistant professors who are establishing themselves.

This is the conclusion of a memo from the The Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy

38 per cent of the funding from public and private councils and foundations were awarded as large grants to the elite in the period 2012-14.

Only 13 per cent of the funding went to young research managers, i.e. the middle strata of assistant and associate professors.

The Villum Foundation has just granted DKK 400 million kroner to 11 top researchers in science and technology.

The lower levels end up therefore being drawn into a vicious circle of desperation where more and more work time is spent on applying for grants, and less time on research.

“We see destitution among the great middle strata of associate professors, that nowadays neither have the time for research, nor the funding to buy the necessary equipment and materials,” says Thomas Vils Pedersen.

He points to the fact that 38 per cent of academic staff say they do not have enough time to work with their research, according to the latest workplace assessment at the University of Copenhagen in 2016.

Gets less research for the money

Chairman of trade union IDA Thomas Damkjær Petersen says it is absurd that politicians have created a system where highly trained specialists spend more time on administration and on getting research funding than on research.

It is a political priority whether you want researchers spending their time looking for money, or on doing research.

Thomas Damkjær Petersen, Chairman of IDA.

In the technical and natural sciences, almost 700 man-years were used on project applications, while an additional 750 FTE (full time equivalents) went to administration, the IDA subsequently calculated.

“We are not saying that there should not be competition. But we are off balance, and as a society we are getting less research for the money that we invest. It is a political priority, whether you want researchers to spend their time looking for money or on doing research,” says Thomas Damkjær Petersen.

Younger associate professors in trouble

A new white paper from the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters  with the  title ‘the university of the blue ocean’ confirms that especially younger associate professors who are trying to get their career going, face a difficult situation.

“There is no money for them as it is the youth and the rock stars of research that attract the funding,” says Prorector for Research and Innovation at UCPH Thomas Bjørnholm who has assisted on working out the white paper.

We wake up every morning as researchers and think that the purpose of our work is to create, share and put new knowledge into play in the wider society. To apply for money is part of being a researcher, but money is a means to achieve the goal, not the goal itself.

Thomas Bjørnholm, Prorector for Research and Innovation at UCPH

He agrees that the associate professors risk being caught up in a downward spiral of not getting their articles finished, because they are writing applications. Then not achieving success with applications, as they do not spend enough time on their research so their articles are not of sufficient quality.

According to Thomas Bjørnholm it is about staying focused, and then letting older, successful researchers help in giving guidance to their younger counterparts.

“We wake up every morning as researchers and think that the purpose of our work is to create, share and put new knowledge into play in the wider society. To apply for money is part of being a researcher, but money is a means to achieve the goal, not the goal itself,” says the Prorector.

He adds that they are attempting to help through the University of Copenhagen’s Research and Innovation Council (KUFIR), where researchers can use the panel to get feedback on their applications.

“The aim is that they should send fewer applications, but with greater chance of success,” says Thomas Bjørnholm.

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