A note on the Performance Based Research Fund

Dear John... oh how I hate to write
(hmm... maybe that's the crux of a PBRF-related issue right there)
Dear John, I must let you know tonight
That my love for teaching is gone
So I'm sending you this song
Tonight, I'm with another
You'd like him John, he's got a quality score over 6.5
So I'm sending you this letter
Dear John.

 
The research productivity of New Zealand universities is evaluated on a six yearly cycle, and this evaluation defines a substantial part of the research funding they will receive for the next six years from the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF). Unlike most overseas equivalents, in New Zealand the unit of analysis is the individual academic, not the department.

As a Wellington-based academic who is not at Victoria University of Wellington, I've experienced a different side to the local news coverage of the PBRF results. What a strange beast PBRF is. Firstly, how great it is that The University of Auckland and Otago University (the only two New Zealand institutions with medical schools) weren't topping a list for once. And trust me that we have all heard that Victoria was the "top ranked" university. The average "quality" scores were, of course, the only metric that gets any attention. Did you know, however, that despite being "ranked sixth" on our "quality score", my current employer Massey University will actually receive 28% more PBRF funds than Victoria in 2013, based on the outcomes of the round? And that in the "quality evaluation" component specifically, Massey will receive 37% more funds than Victoria? How is that? Surely since the PBRF is about distributing funds to where they are deserved, they would be going to Victoria? No. PBRF funds are based on the total amount of good quality research being done by an institution, not just how good it is on average when divided by the number of portfolios submitted. It's like comparing a bespoke dining table that has been lovingly polished till it gleams, to another home with an entire good quality dining suite with chairs plus also a bedroom suite. If you do less, you might indeed make it better on average... but you've still done less in total. Apples and guavas.

Here's another angle I see on this. Did you also know that I would lower the quality score of any academic psychology department in the country that I joined? What a great feeling. This, despite having been the New Zealand principal investigator of a four year, three site international clinical trial, with colleagues in the US and Canada, funded by the US National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research during the PBRF period? This, having supervised four doctorates to completion during the period, another since, and with five further doctoral candidates submitting for examination in the first half of 2013? And also coordinating Massey's Doctor of Clinical Psychology programme on our Wellington campus, with over 20 concurrent doctoral candidates throughout the past three years? And in addition to my other teaching, having also taught literally hundreds of frontline brain injury rehabilitation professionals, service managers and case managers through professional development courses during the PBRF period, meaning there may not be a brain injury rehabilitation service in the country that doesn't have staff that I have personally taught? Opportunities for genuinely health service-impacting research abound.

As it has been structured in New Zealand, the PBRF is fundamentally an exercise in individual behaviour change at a mass population level, an issue that I have a strong personal and professional interest in. Despite this, to my knowledge psychologists haven't been involved in the design or evaluation of the PBRF. In my opinion, the behaviours that have been observed at an institutional and individual academic level in the PBRF process were entirely predictable, and in many cases, unfortunate.

I'm moving to AUT University in Auckland in July. I'll be working for the next year as a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Rehabilitation in the School of Rehabilitation and Occupation Studies, in a position where I'll work with the Person Centred Research Centre. I'll be spending about half my time in translational brain injury rehabilitation research in partnership with ABI Rehabilitation (who are mostly funding the position) and other frontline brain injury rehabilitation services in Auckland and to some degree throughout New Zealand. The other half of my time I'll be back at AUT's north shore campus, primarily pursuing other neurorehabilitation research. I might be involved in supervising one or two graduate students, and I'll give a few guest lectures during the year possibly. But the primary focus will be research, working with a great team who are both highly productive and highly personable. I enjoy teaching (when I have the time to do it properly) and my teaching evaluations have frankly been far better than the evaluation I received from the Tertiary Education Commission through the PBRF process last week. But I am more passionate about impacting brain injury rehabilitation services in New Zealand and internationally through relevant, cutting edge research. So you could say that in my new job I've won second division PBRF Lotto. (First division would have been to get a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.) I've found an exit that will resolve the workload strain that has been affecting my family life, while also positioning me for future research productivity. But most of my academic colleagues here have not seen greater space being created for them to do more research or better research through the PBRF process... just additional pressure to be more productive alongside all their existing commitments.

I have personal knowledge of, and deep respect for, some of the people who designed the PBRF. And I'm sure the PBRF was designed for excellent reasons. But something needs to change here. Because our university system isn't just broken—it's breaking people.