Thursday, November 26, 2015

How the 80-20 rule may be undermining university quality

I recently learned about the Pareto principle, which according to Wikipedia

"(also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes."

For example, if you are supervising a team of employees, 80% of your time will be spent in dealing with 20% of them, probably the mostly poorly performing or most vocal.

This past year I have had a minor administrative role, as a "Research Committee" chair. Probably 80% of the time, involves co-ordinating, supporting, and assessing grant funding applications, both internal and external to the university. Most of these grant programs have success rates at the 10-20% level. Virtually none of my time is actually spent on initiatives to help improve the quality or quantity of research done by the bulk of faculty members.

My experience has also made me more aware of what people in senior management appear to spend their time doing and what gets their interest and attention. Increasingly, it seems to be focussed on "high status" activities associated with "esteem measures" such as "prestigious" grants and fellowships, and of course, publication in luxury journals. The issue is well illustrated with a story about some researchers who were making a pitch for a new supercomputer centre.

University VP (Research): Will this help you get a Nature paper?

Researcher: Probably not, but it will help other researchers at the university publish a hundred other papers.

The problem is again that little attention or resources are directed to most of the research that is going on.

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