Friday, May 1, 2015

The challenge of setting priorities

We all have limited time, energy, and money.
We all have priorities even if we can't clearly state them or don't publicly state them.
Setting priorities is a challenge not just for individuals but also for departments, institutions, and research fields.
I think rarely does this happen well.

When priorities are not clearly stated, whether from individuals to institutions, "stake holders" are left trying to guess and speculate what the priorities really are.

Publicly stated priorities too often look like a "dog's breakfast": a mishmash of wish lists from competing interests, or a laundry list...

I feel this sometimes applies to lists of "research strengths" or "research priorities" that  Australian universities come up with every few years.

Every few years departments in Australian universities are extensively reviewed, leading to a list of 20-30 specific recommendations, that the department chair is then held accountable to implement before the next review. However, these recommendations seem to be given equal weight whereas they really may vary significantly in their importance and value.

Another example are the Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations, which are the successor to the eight Millennium Development Goals. In spite of their many faults I think the MDGs had merits and did lead to some significant outcomes. But, the SDGs (17 goals with 169 targets) may lead to no significant outcomes due to their breadth, as critiqued by The Economist.

Because condensed matter physics and chemistry are diverse and diffuse fields I think they can suffer in the funding game, particularly in some countries, when you have competing interests that will publicly (or privately when reviewing grant proposals) put each other down. In contrast, some fields such as high energy physics and astrophysics are sometimes very good at bringing their community together to privately agree on priorities and then publicly lobby for support, particularly for large projects.
I think a recent exception for condensed matter is that finally the community has agreed that growth of high quality single crystals of quantum materials is a long-neglected priority, something that the Moore Foundation has picked up on.

Do why don't we set priorities?

It is hard work.

It involves incomplete information where the future is uncertain.
We don't know what projects or people are going to be fruitful in the long term.

It may involve the painful process of saying no.
We have to say no to many good things in order to realistically pursue a couple of excellent goals.
Sometimes it is time to quit and cut our losses.

Some people will be disappointed and/or get offended.
They and/or their pet projects may not be a priority.
This is particularly why often real priorities are not clearly stated or when they are they are a "dogs breakfast".

We are waiting for a miracle to happen.
If all of the sudden we got a big breakthrough on the project, or a new big grant or a brilliant student or something else things would become easier and simpler.

Having said all this, I think having set the priorities is just the first challenge. Sticking to them in the face of setbacks, changing circumstances, criticism, and discouragements can be an even greater challenge.

So, how do you set priorities? If not, why not?
Should chemistry and condensed matter be more clearly setting priorities? Is that politically realistic?

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