Research Impediments

It’s now almost four years since I took up my current post as a Senior Lecturer 1 at the Dublin Institute of Technology. I had been asked to give a presentation about ‘Providing academic leadership’ as part of the application process. The document I prepared for it has been on my web site ever since. It is still there, but today I removed the link from the homepage and I have reproduced it below.

Link icon: image of a hand holding a penThe linked document is a personal expression in relation to academic leadership at a particular moment in time and under the rather specific heading of “Providing academic leadership through the role of Senior Lecturer 1 (Teaching) using the theme of ‘Sustainable Energy’ as an example.” (PDF file 74KB)

A key phrase in my document was this: ‘At Senior Lecturer level, one should be actively engaged in research.’ I have not met my aspirations, although it has been a four year period in which I have worked very hard.

There is a small minority of my colleagues who manage to undertake a significant amount of research to international standards. They are greatly to be admired and respected. Also, there are some areas within the Institute where the environment for doing research is more favourable than in others. In history, some of the best and most important research has been conducted in adversity. I certainly cannot claim that conditions in my institute do not favour research, but there are aspects and factors that make it particularly challenging, especially in these recessionary times.

I still hold the view that those who teach engineering at professional level and at post-graduate level need to be actively engaged in research. If they are not, I believe the education at these levels is undermined. I am not making excuses for any shortcomings of my own, but the following are some factors that militate against conducting research at an appropriately high level.

  • Timetabled contact hours are excessive. I am currently timetabled for 19 hours in semester 2 and was timetabled for sixteen hours in semester 1. This includes one timetabled hour per week for ‘meeting with students.’ I put considerable time and effort into my work and it takes me more than forty hours per week, not including time for research.
  • I am allowed two timetabled hours per week for supervising four year-long projects on a taught-master programme, which, with a weighting for the meetings with the students being after 6:00 p.m., is counted as three hours per week. I am timetabled for three hours per week for supervising six final year projects at BE degree level. Although I am thus involved with a significant amount of research through project-supervision, the timescale involved and the fact that the students have heavy coursework and/or laboratory workloads in addition to their projects makes it very difficult for me to produce any research publications in conjunction with these final-year or one-year-taught-master students.
  • In the current academic year, I deliver two one-semester modules at second year BEngTech degree level, one one-semester module at second year BE degree level and one one-semester module at master level. I am timetabled for two hours of laboratories throughout the academic year and in semester 1 was timetabled for four hours per week, working with first year BEngTech students, in a computer laboratory. For all such activities I spend considerable time preparing my lectures and labs and carrying out continuous assessment. Also, I spend at least three full weeks of the academic year marking exam scripts. There simply is not adequate time left for research. The research I do is largely confined to the vacation periods. I routinely spend significant time in the evenings and at week-ends doing academic work, throughout the calendar year.
  • Access to online information resources at my institute is inferior to that available in the Irish universities. This can make it a lot more difficult and more time-consuming for me and my colleagues to access the information for research that we and our research students need. As higher level education in Ireland is mainly funded by the Irish State, it makes no sense whatsoever that access to research information in the Institutes of Technology should be inferior to that in the universities—the bill is ultimately paid by the State and the State should insist on an all-encompassing deal from the suppliers.
  • My institute has some really excellent laboratories and facilities, in some cases superior to those available in the Irish universities, but the structures and mechanisms for employing or deploying those resources for research are very weak (with some notable exceptions) and the Irish State does not fund the Institute for research as such: equipment is provided for teaching purposes and there is no budgetary provision for technical staff to work on research activities, unless specifically hired with research funding.
  • While the President of the Institute is appointed for a ten-year term, the Heads of the Colleges of the Institute and the Heads of the Schools within the Colleges are appointed for life (although in the current economic circumstances some are in temporary ‘acting’ positions). On the face of it, it would seem that a willingness to perform administrative and management functions is seen as more important than being a recognised researcher with a strong track record in a discipline area. Colleagues in administrative functionary roles are paid more than other, sometimes more academically qualified, colleagues at levels up to Senior Lecturer 1 who do not have major managerial responsibilities. Ordinary academic staff (up to Senior Lecturer 1) have little or no say in the appointment of those who will lead their disciplines. Therefore, on occasion, there can be a lack of collegiality in the direction from the top down. I am a member of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, which seems to be reasonably content with the existing structures (which are currently being re-arranged), that separate managerial roles from teaching roles and tend to neglect the roles of being a leading exponent of a particular discipline or a world-class academic and researcher. In my view, these types of structures do not favour the best quality of technical education or research. Personally, I would like to see key institute roles rotate among highly eligible academics, who would take on the roles for a specified period of years.
  • Before my appointment to my present position as a Senior Lecturer 1 (Teaching), I had formally been made a Professor of Dublin Institute of Technology and I still hold that somewhat rare title. Those subsequently appointed as ‘Professors’ have been given what seems to me a diminished title of ‘Honorary Professor.’ In many universities and institutes where a proportion of the academic staff, normally those who have achieved a high level of peer recognition in their disciplines, are given the special title of Professor, the Professors are remunerated at a higher level and are very central to the policy making of the institute or university. In the Dublin Institute of Technology, such persons have a title only. They would have to apply for managerial administrative posts, and be appointed, in order to receive any additional remuneration or to wield any significant additional influence within the Institute. Yet, in those posts they would face countless meetings and being held responsible for meeting many types of demands that would have little to do with their academic expertise or professional status. They would have very little time for teaching or research, although there are some who, to their great credit, do manage to do one or both on top of everything else. I believe there should be appropriate recognition of those who are granted the title of Professor by an Institute of Technology. Research would be strengthened thereby.
  • The Dublin Institute of Technology is a multi-level institute with programmes ranging from Level 6 to Level 10, as well as programmes that relate to broad education within society without necessarily fitting into defined levels. I believe this can and should be one of the great strengths of the Institute. However, better internal and external recognition of the nature of such a rare type of institute is needed. For instance, the number of timetabled ‘contact hours’ that may be appropriate for programmes at level six may not be appropriate at other levels. Yet, in the Institute, there is a tacit acceptance by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland and management that the same measures of what constitutes workload should apply. I disagree strongly. (In fact, I fundamentally dislike the notion of measuring the contribution of an academic staff member in terms of ‘timetabled contact hours.’) For example, the 22-lecture module that I am currently delivering on ‘Heat and Mass Transfer’ within the Mechanical Engineering ME Programme, level 9, is intense. I work very hard in preparation for each double lecture session, commonly putting-in four or more hours of preparation for one hour of lecture (and a lot more the first time I delivered the module). Although I am capable and committed, it is hard going. Also, I know that rightly I should not be delivering a module at this level if I am not actively engaged in research in the area. I do have some research publications that are relevant, but it is virtually impossible for me to be at the level of expertise that I should be at for the delivery of such a module. Yet, one hour of delivery at this level is treated exactly the same as one hour at level 6, 7 or 8 where, for example, the lecturer might have to teach first year students how to use Microsoft Word. In fact, last semester I was timetabled for four hours per week showing first year BEngTech students how to use various software applications. I felt that I was under-deployed.
  • Within my institute, appropriate office accomodation is not automatically available for academic staff. Within my particular campus of the Institute most academic staff are accommodated in multi-occupancy offices. Single occupancy offices are usually only available for those at Senior Lecturer 1 level, for those in the managerial grades (Structured Lecturers, Assistant Heads of School, Heads of School) and for some non-academic administrative staff. I am one of the fortunate ones in that I have been allocated a single-occupancy office, which I find essential for the type of academic work I do and to be able to do some research. In these straitened times, resources are limited and one may have to wait many months to have even a simple accommodation-related issue resolved. I have experience over the past four years of a range of these. Currently, because of a defective occupancy sensor, the lights in my office go off intermittently even when I am having a meeting with a student. It has not been possible to have this resolved since last September, i.e. in five months. Other, less fortunate colleagues have to meet their project students or research students in labs, corridors or the coffee dock, where they do not have access to their files or their desktop computer.
  • Nowadays there are many necessary requirements to be complied with in relation to managing research funds and employing researchers. I believe the best way for universities and institutes to meet these requirements is to provide adequate administrative support and assistance to academic staff engaging in research, allowing the academics to focus mainly on the research (which in itself is a lot to be doing). My experience is that the procedures in my institute are very off-putting for me and my colleagues with regard to conducting research. As an example, I applied for and was awarded a small grant to develop online teaching resources for the National Digital Learning Repository. In principle, I was to use the grant for buy-out of some of my teaching hours. This proved almost impossible to achieve, and was not achieved. My Head of Department gave me an agreed three-hour allowance off on my timetable for one semester and completed documentation in that regard. However, the procedures for actually transferring the grant amount so that it could pay for the buy-out of my teaching hours and so that someone could be specifically appointed to fill the hours were so complicated that they were not successfully completed and the transfer did not occur. Over a full academic year I did a great deal of work, in accordance with the commitment I had made and more, but my Department did not receive any funds for the buy-out of my time. This is a very trivial example, but colleagues need great drive and commitment in order to take-on the bureaucratic burdens involved in undertaking research. Research funding is difficult to come by in the current economic climate.
  • A huge amount of work, commitment and time is needed to develop research proposals that would have a chance of success, never mind the work and commitment it takes to have the level of current knowledge and expertise necessary to compete nationally and internationally. Where are the incentives?