13 Sep 2015

The management game of communication

Over the last decennia, in many other countries, the number of communication students has shown an enormous increase, following student preferences and societal needs. In Finland, the number of places for students per discipline is regulated. There are no entrance fees but selection of candidates for an earlier set maximum number of freshmen. Over the years the number of communication students has approximately remained the same, and thus was kept artificially low compared with the number of applications. Only on the BA level in applied sciences a raise is noted in the percentage of communication students within the total number of students. At the national and university level it seems that the planners are not aware of how different the balance is when compared to other countries.

To quote Jason Schmitt in HuffPost: “At a college near you, at this very moment, a student is switching their major to Communication Studies. As an academic discipline, Communication Studies is posting strong growth. ... Perhaps equally important is that the discipline seems well positioned to maintain strong future growth potential.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-schmitt/communication-studies-ris_b_6025038.html

One can also wonder how to position communication studies within universities. Interest has risen in connecting with organizational studies and business schools. The EUPRERA 2015 Congress in Oslo (October 1-3), has as its central theme “THE MANAGEMENT GAME OF COMMUNICATION: How PR/Corporate Communication Supports Organizations and What Communicators Can Learn from Management Disciplines”. http://euprera2015.no/

To quote the EUPRERA website: “Kotler and Mindak in 1973 lamented the lack of management and economics courses for Public Relations students as well as the refusal of business schools to teach Public Relations. This state of affairs is not so much different today, as we see communication graduates with little organisational/ business knowledge and business graduates with little communication knowledge. ... There has been growing understanding based on research that communication practitioners need more business knowhow, that they need to have a better understanding of how their organizations operate, and that a strategic orientation ensures that communication executives are invited to participate early in organisational strategic decision-making.” http://www.euprera.org/?p=125

These are interesting matters to discuss in Oslo, and at the various universities.

23 Feb 2015

More than 20% of research time is spent on applying for research funding, with decreasing success rates...


Researchers are spending more time than ever on applying for research funding. A survey conducted in the Netherlands, indicates that this fills now 20% of the time. Scholars write more project proposals, with a decreasing success rate of below 15%. In the process also good proposals are known to get rejected. The study also showed that 10% of scholars, approximately 20 big names, get more than 60% of the available free funding (Van Calmthout, 20-21.2.2015, de Volkskrant). They often work in medical sciences, bio sciences, or physics, involving large consortia of specialists. Other scholars are considered lucky with a few millions in a life time, while many struggle to get any, especially in languages and social sciences. This concentration has been intended, but do the happy few indeed yield 100 times as good results per euro invested as the others?

Similarly, also in Finland a sharp increase of time invested in funding is noted. Deans push scholars to write more and more applications for national funding, while their collective action makes the chances drop even lower as the budget as a whole does not grow. On average, American research shows that writing one proposal costs a full month of work. For the EU funding through Horizon 2020 there was so much promotion that the competition has increased significantly compared to 5 years ago. As the many more applications also need many new reviewers, some universities push less experienced researchers to become reviewer to ‘learn the trade’. This, next to choosing for familiar names or selecting your own stream or approach, explains why good applications also can be rejected.

So far, I have been lucky to have had in the last 8 years next to national funding 3 EU-funded projects, twice consortium leader. But we also lost a good application because the reviewers mistakenly thought that we had ‘misunderstood the call’. The call text focused on cultural factors, while the review said economic factors should have been taken into account. Moreover, the reviewers completely missed the fact that we used the most advanced approach that was indeed broader than cultural factors, as we research diversity rather than only cultural diversity. Needless to say that in the Security area all kinds of reviewers such as with a technical background are involved and this particular call needed a social sciences approach. Security calls are currently anyhow dominated by technology, often causing products that may seem to become a commercial success but do not resonate with needs in civil society. Reviewers check if human factors are included but do not note that this hardly gets budget within the project.

I also lost an ERC application because one of the reviewers said “I am not an expert in this discipline but I feel that this field is not useful”. The project officer coordinating the process should have taken notice of this remark and taken out this review, and the reviewer should in the first place have passed the review on to someone qualified in this field. ERC calls work with reviewer teams that are more specialised. But one might encounter a reviewer that thinks “organizational communication is about manipulating”, whereas the project actually was about societal problem solving, which is recognised by another enthusiastic reviewer, but the average is taken.

The review system depends on the quality of peer review, while with the growing numbers of applications we currently need too many new reviewers. But more importantly, the costs in researcher time of this system are becoming very high. The system has been successful in reaching concentration in financially intensive research areas. However, now it is time to ensure that also innovation in science is stimulated. The current system is reproducing the big names we already have, it emphasizes commercial impact too much, and it prohibits that new disciplines and approaches can break through.