[cross posted from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/dec/18/research-council-sandpits-funding-decisions]
There aren't a lot of women professors around, particularly in science and engineering. Figures from the Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA) indicate that only one in five professors are women, even though women make up half of the rest of the academic workforce. There are many reasons for this, but here's a contributing factor which deeply irritates me: research council sandpits.
These are five-day intensive residential workshops at which research consortia are formed and large sums of research funding are allocated. They are fairly brutal events by reputation – disturbingly the phrase "tribal behaviour" crops up in one description of how the sandpit model was developed.
Imagine a literal sandpit of bespectacled professors hitting each other with plastic spades and chanting "But I want funding!" as they kick sand into each other's faces. I imagine this scene because I've never actually been to one. Why? Because I don't have the luxury of spending five nights in an expensive hotel indulging in tax payer-funded intellectual play.
I spend my time at home, building real sand castles with a lovable yet demanding three-year-old. Other academics will be helping their children with homework, doing the laundry, cooking the dinner, attempting to find their elderly mother's heart pills, visiting their grandfather in his care home or quite possibly doing all of these activities at once.
There are many people who balance caring responsibilities with working. Currently, one in eight adults care for adults with ill health or disability and 58% of these carers are female. In the UK, 48% of women with one child under six-years-old work part time (in comparison to 5% of men).
Attracting research funding is a key activity for those who wish to advance their careers, and the last thing women academics need is another barrier to promotion (or indeed male academics with caring roles, who are also affected by this issue). It is deeply puzzling to me that Research Councils UK funders, who claim not to discriminate among applicants for research funding , persist in this model of allocating funds.
In my field, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) states that "sandpits inadvertently can suffer from a low female participation", as if this was not a direct consequence of the way the event is organised. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) at least "appreciate that some people will have caring roles that make it difficult to commit to the residential nature of the sandpit". Having acknowledged this problem, it goes on to propose the non-solution of asking your employer to fund childcare costs, or discussing flexible arrangements around hotel accommodation.
Maybe I am suffering from a lack of imagination, but I can't see how this is meant to work in practice. How are we to reconcile part-time flexible working routines with a working week away from home? Are toddlers meant to be locked in the hotel room by themselves while academics brainstorm about transformative research? Do elderly relatives get a bucket and spade and join the sandpit? Who is going to pick up our children from school when we are 400 miles away for five days straight?
A long suffering partner with a flexible employer is presumably part of the funders' rather hazy picture of family life for academics. I am lucky to have such a partner; others may not. In any case, a caring role goes beyond meeting the financial costs of childcare or the logistics or arranging meals for a disabled parent. It is about being present when people need you most: to provide comfort, help and love.
In the past financial year, EPSRC alone spent £218,000 on sandpit running costs, and allocated £19.4m on research to be funded from sandpits. This is 2.5% of EPSRC's budget commitment for the year for research, as revealed by a freedom of information request in November 2013. This is a low proportion of its budget, but a large amount of money in real terms. What's more, the success rate for getting funding is presumably considerably higher for sandpit attendees than responsive mode applicants because there is a smaller pool of people competing for a pot of money.
The most frustrating aspect of the sandpit model is the lack of compelling evidence that it results in better funding decisions, more innovative ideas or higher quality research. Rather than providing such data, EPSRC's explanation of why they use sandpits includes such soundbites: "The IDEAS Factory Sandpit mechanism is unique and has already shown a universally positive impact for those attending."
The impact on those unable to attend is not mentioned. The lack of inclusivity seems unnecessary. What's wrong with writing proposals and having them evaluated on scientific merit? Is the extra Lord of the Flies-like intensity in sandpits really advancing scientific knowledge?
EPSRC is very proud of its model: "The IDEAS Factory Sandpit has emerged as a shining EPSRC innovation invention, copied far and wide across continents, funding agencies and multinational corporations," writes organisational psychologist Bharat Maldé on the council's website.
But what of all those carers across continents who have found it more difficult to succeed at work because of this fad – and the British taxpayers who funded it? At some point, funders must realise it's time to grow up and climb out of the sandpit.