Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The global reach of the EU

With the EU currently engaged in working out its budget for the coming period (2014-2020), and the British Government apparently resisting proposals for a modest real-terms increase in the budget, it's worth thinking a little about what the EU actually does with all our money. Here I shall mostly focus on some aspects of the EU's external relations.

The first thing to remember, though, is just how small the EU's total budget is. It's actually just under 1.25% of the overall EU Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and most of the spending goes to agriculture and the various structural funds.That doesn't leave much for all the other diverse things the EU does, both in Europe and across the wider world. Again, contrary to what many people tend to think, the EU bureaucracy is also surprisingly small. Given all this, you can see why, as presently constituted, the EU cannot possibly act as a sort of fiscal union for Europe, something that people often say would be needed for the Eurozone to work in the longer term. The EU budget, for instance, is minute as a fraction of Community GDP, compared to the US Federal Government budget in relation to the dollar area (the US and a few other territories).

Moving on to the EU's external relations, it turns out that all my recent and current work is funded by the EU, so I'll sketch a few points through three examples:

When I mentioned to friends a few weeks ago that I was going to spend nine days in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, the main reactions were: (a) where is Tajikistan? And (b) why is the EU funding projects out there? Good questions, so let me try to explain.

Tajikistan is the smallest and poorest of the Central Asian Republics that were formed when the Soviet Union split up in 1991; it is located just north of Afghanistan. It experienced civil war in the 1990s and a good deal of economic mismanagement since then, though in the last few years the economy has been growing reasonably well and the public finances have returned to quite a healthy state. The EU has provided aid to the country ever since the Soviet Union broke up, and in recent years much of this aid has taken the form of technical assistance projects aimed at improving economic policy.

So my reason for going there was an invitation to contribute to the final stages of two of these projects, one on macroeconomic modelling and forecasting, the other on public financial management. Both projects involved a mix of outside experts and senior officials from the Tajik government working together to come up with solutions to various economic policy problems that fit the prevailing Tajik conditions. Not always an easy task, but an interesting one.

Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI)
These islands are in the Caribbean, and I'll be out there with a colleague from November 4th to 13th (arriving home on the 14th). Back in 2009, the British Government assumed direct control of the islands as a result of the TCI government's perceived corruption and incompetence, resulting in unsustainable budget deficits. The islands are one of the UK's overseas dependent territories, and as such, like the dependent territories of all EU Member States, they are eligible to receive EU aid through the European Development Fund (EDF). In the case of TCI, however, EU funding was suspended when the UK took over running the islands.

Our task for next week, therefore, is to assess the current economic situation of TCI, including the budget, in order to determine whether the islands have restored their economy sufficiently to be eligible for further EU funding. From what we already know, the islands obviously think they've done enough to turn things around, and with luck we'll end up supporting their view, perhaps with one or two added conditions. Also with luck, we might just manage to enjoy a little sunshine while out there, who knows...........

Falkland Islands
These islands are another UK dependent territory eligible for EDF support from the EU. My colleague and I have already almost finalised our report on the Falkland Islands supporting their EDF 10 funding, and proposing how it should be allocated in the next three years. However, the last major stage of the work involves spending two days in Brussels - November 15th and 16th - to discuss detailed points with Commission officials and to make sure we get the final report exactly right to meet EU requirements. As part of this work, I gather that a video link will be set up with the Falklands so that we can discuss some points with officials there, too.

So that gives a little taster about the external activities of the EU. It's surprisingly diverse!

And after all this travel, to work on the above projects, I think that from November 17th I should be home at least until January.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Research ethics

From time to time we can read scandalous stories about research.

Someone has falsified their data, or their survey findings, to claim a result that is not really supported by the evidence. Quite properly, we are shocked when such stories crop up. They clearly do not represent the ethical, or honourable way to do research. On the other hand, given the pressures that exist in universities and research centres to get results and to deliver highly rated publications, it's easy to see why and how these things can happen. That's not at all to defend unethical research, of course, since that doesn't contribute to the generation of new knowledge and understanding of the world - which is what good research is surely all about.

But it does mean that institutions that deliberately put a great deal of pressure on their researchers to 'perform' and 'deliver' must always be on their guard to watch out for this sort of distortion. Moreover, undue pressure on researchers can sometimes lead not just to deliberate falsification, but also to honest mistakes committed in the rush to deliver results.

Such concerns about the quality and reliability of research are probably among the factors behind the increasing tendency for universities to insist that all research must be subject to some sort of ethical oversight, and for funding bodies to require a section on research ethics in their funding application forms. However, most of the new research ethics 'machinery' is actually not so much concerned with the aspect of research referred to above, namely its basic honesty and integrity, since this is still largely taken for granted. And anyway, how could the honesty of research be checked? I suppose the system still relies on peer pressure and the replication of experiments to highlight areas where some falsification or other distortion has occurred, though this is inevitably rather hit-and-miss. It also relies on occasional heavy penalties, like the loss of one's job, to provide negative incentives!

More mundanely, though still importantly, most of the new ethical machinery, at least in the social sciences, is more designed to ensure that where research might involve human subjects, the research is done in a way that involves voluntary and informed participation, without any pressure being placed on potential 'subjects' to take part. Within my own School, for instance, the ethical guidelines for research were recently updated, and it's clear that how we do research involving human subjects was a paramount concern.

This makes good sense, though it did seem to me that we were running a risk of being overly heavy handed in our approach. For the guidelines state that all the research we do must be subject to official ethical oversight, not only that where human subjects are or might be involved. This means that our ethics committee should, in principle, get to know about every single bit of research that goes on in the School. I would be surprised if the system works that well in practice, for I suspect that through a mix of ignorance and common sense, many of us will just get on with our perfectly respectable research without worrying about the ethical dimension - if we make a judgement at all, it will be that the research does not give rise to ethical issues. Now, I know that according to the rules we are not supposed to be the judges in our own cases, but I bet we often are.

For instance, a recent paper I wrote on North Korea (now published) was based on diverse secondary sources plus some of my earlier work on institutions related to transition to a market-type economy in Central and Eastern Europe. I didn't perform a survey, nor did I interview anyone, so although I didn't seek ethical approval for the work (and to be truthful, the idea never crossed my mind) it's hard to see what would have been done differently had I done so. And a good deal of research is like this.

Hence bringing ethical considerations into our research can be highly desirable if it helps to make us more careful and honest in what we do, and if it promotes good practice (as with the treatment of research involving human subjects), but we probably shouldn't push it too far. Nor should we make it overly bureaucratic.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Academic employment contracts

I was going to continue the discussion of the last posting on disruptive innovation and how it might impinge on our universities - and I shall come back to that topic quite soon. But almost by accident, while in the Budapest Corvinus University yesterday, I found myself talking about - and then thinking about - academic employment contracts. These have evolved over time, naturally, but they remain in many ways surprisingly open ended and almost informal.

When I first became a professor at Heriot-Watt University, back in 1985, my contract then basically said that I was appointed to be a professor, that I was responsible to the Principal of the University (in other words, he was formally designated as my line manager), and that I would be head of the then economics department for an initial five year spell. There was also a little about holiday, sick-pay, rules about consultancy and outside earnings, and stuff like that. But I don't recall anything in the contract that gave any clues as to what exactly a professor was supposed to do. In those days, I think, the presumption was that if you had got as far as becoming a professor, you should have absorbed enough of the 'ethos' and 'culture' of academic life to know what to do, without needing anything in the way of instructions or explicit guidance. And actually, that presumption was probably broadly correct.

Thus my contract provided at most a very sketchy outline of my role, while informal understandings across the academic community, and my personal goals to develop my own research, provided plenty of motivation and direction to keep me busy and (hopefully) productive. Moreover, I knew for sure that the Principal was not remotely interested in being an active line manager. He was clearly happiest when I just got on with the job (as defined by me), and was more than content to have the very occasional chat over lunch or a coffee for a quick update on what I was doing. Back then, we had no research assessments to contend with, no teaching quality assessments, no individual staff appraisal with annual targets and performance reports. So from a 'modern' perspective, it probably all sounds almost shockingly informal.

Even our external activities, including consultancy, were handled with considerable informality. It was taken for granted that as a professor, I would do some external examining for other universities, referee journal articles, and things like that, and I still do much of this, despite being officially retired. These are mostly unpaid activities (OK, external examining is not unpaid, but the remuneration is derisory; no one would do it for the money!) that most academics do as a routine part of being an academic. It goes with the territory - but there's nothing in our contracts about it.

As for consultancy, my 'old contract', long ago superseded by more restrictive conditions, allowed me to work up to one day per week outside the University without any special permission. I hardly ever took advantage of that provision, and the first time I worked for the World Bank, in 1990, I did consult the Principal about the project. I found myself in the bizarre position of trying to convince him that we should ask for an overhead contribution for the University (we did ask, and we got one), and I thought he might want the University to take a share of the income I was going to earn. 'No, no', he said, indicating that it was good for the University's reputation and standing to be engaged with bodies like the World Bank. He insisted that I keep all the money (which was not a huge sum, it must be admitted).

So much for the informality of the past, which was nevertheless perfectly compatible with working hard and being a productive academic, delivering a good, supportive teaching service to our students, and doing interesting research.

Nowadays, though, universities have shifted strongly in the direction of being more managerial, partly for external reasons to do with accountability - to funders, to the general public, to our students, etc. And partly for internal reasons, an increasing trend towards surrounding all our activities with extensive paper trails (for audit and accountability reasons, and also to provide protective documentation in the event of appeals and lawsuits), and towards thinking that we can get the best out of staff by managing/supervising them more closely. The last point, in my view, is just mistaken, but it seems to be the prevailing approach now.

Our contracts are probably a bit more precisely specified than they used to be, though they remain remarkably open ended. But in the academic working environment they are everywhere supplemented by quite detailed management of most of what we do. I sometimes wonder what this does  to academic incentives to do different things. In particular, service to the wider academic community is not managed, not incentivised (to use a truly horrible modern word) at all, and I wonder whether the next generation of academics will simply take the view that it is no longer part of the academic job. Or shall we move to a position where these external, and largely unpaid activities have to be properly paid for - so instead of a notional fee of £100, say, for examining a PhD, one would have to be paid, shall we say, £1500?

I would personally feel rather sad if the academic community did move far in this direction, as I like the traditional cooperative ethos and find that over the years it has given me the broad framework I have needed to manage the different strands of my work reasonably well. And I suppose I also feel that if institutions want their academics to deliver good work, it's not very wise to be overly prescriptive regarding what they should be doing. The academic 'job' is too complicated and diverse to be pinned down like that.