Complexity isn’t a vice!

Complexity isn’t a vice!

Oftentimes I am asked for 500-word explanations of political issues. I’d rather use 500 words to explain why I won’t do it.

On a West Wing episode, the incumbent president wins a presidential debate by explaining why “ten-word answers” aren’t practical.

Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? […] How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments.

The last Bundestag debate on research funding can be reduced to ten-word slogans.

The governing coalition argued: We awarded more funding to research than initially agreed upon.

The opposition stated: Universities are underfinanced and more jobs are needed in academia.

They are both right. In terms of R&D expenditure, Germany does well compared to the rest of the EU (Figure 1). However, German academia does need more permanent positions. In addition, funding shouldn’t be restricted to excellence universities, as it is now. Considering that both ten-word slogans sound good, I want politicians to give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it?


Figure 1: EU countries’ gross domestic expenditure on R&D as percentage of GDP in 2013. Source: Statistical bulletin: UK Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development. 2013

Previously, I argued that decreasing the number of doctoral candidates is the solution to the need for structured academic career paths. I also showed that “excellence”-based funding doesn’t work. However, these ideas aren’t popular.

Decreasing the number of doctoral candidates isn’t wished for by doctoral candidates, even when it would result in an improvement in their employment conditions. This is shown by a survey among 1063 Max Planck PhD candidates: 86% of respondents would choose contracts over stipends, but only 54% of them would accept the sacrifices this entails (Figure 2). Thus, junior academics’ “policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”.

complexity_fig2.pngFigure 2: Method of payment preferences of 1063 Max Planck PhD candidates surveyed in August 2014.

Furthermore, “excellence”-based funding is cherished while the Matthew effect is ignored because academics hope that one day they will become “excellent” – ignoring the fact that more than 90% of them will never be. By accepting the “excellence”-based system, academics are saying: “Yup, I can plainly see this game is rigged, which is what is going to make it so sweet when I win it.”

To conclude, too many doctoral candidates want to enter a system that doesn’t ensure career paths for them. Moreover, researchers want “excellence”-based funding for few universities, while other universities must also be financed. We cannot have it all. Prioritizing needs more than 500 words because complexity isn’t a vice!

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