Friday 5 November 2021

Affirmative action in NZ academia

David Farrar points to some changes coming for PBRF

Evidence portfolios submitted by Māori (and Pacific) staff will have a 2.5 (2.0) funding weighting applied. 

The subject area weighting for Evidence Portfolios assessed by the Māori Knowledge and Development panel (the Pacific Research peer-review panel) will increase from 1 to 3 (2.5).

I get the problem they're trying to solve here. I'm not sure this is the right way of going about things. 

I'd emailed a friend about it a while back, when news of this first made the rounds. A mildly edited version of that is copied below:

Here is my attempt to steelman the policy. Parts of it I disagree with, and overall I still don’t like the policy. But this would be an argument in favour:

PBRF weighs heavily research contributions. That’s its job. But assessment panels always have an easier time dealing with contributions that fit the international mold. And the top international journals in important disciplines simply do not care about issues that matter in New Zealand policy.

In economics, papers based on New Zealand data addressing New Zealand policy issues would make a top journal in the unlikely event that the issue accidentally creates a nice natural experiment that speaks to broader theoretical or methodological issues that economists publishing in the top journals care about. Otherwise, it will wind up in New Zealand Economic Papers, a third-tier journal. And PBRF rates top contributions highly.

International academic reputation already depends heavily on publishing in top journals. Combine that with a PBRF system that amplifies the already-huge rewards for publishing in top journals, and you have a recipe for discouraging NZ academics from doing any work at all that’s of relevance to NZ.

Māori academic staff who may be more naturally inclined to pursue research of direct interest to their home communities will be punished for doing so in their international academic standing, in their journal placements, in their PBRF rankings, and consequently in their promotion prospects. And similarly for Pacifica. A thumb on the scales offsets that effect.

But even more brutally, academia is an international game. The best in the world get their training in the US, and the best of those then get jobs at top US universities. Kiwis are a small proportion of the world's potential profs, and presumably an even smaller proportion of those who've gotten decent degrees in the US. And an even smaller number will either be Māori or Pacifica. If they come out of one of those schools with a doctorate, and they’re able to publish in top journals, they’d be a bit crazy to come back to New Zealand (or have strong preferences, which is kinda the same thing). A thumb on the PBRF scales encourages those who want to do this kind of work to come home to do it. 

Now why do I not like the policy anyway? It turns NZ academia into a niche play that’s outside of the global academic conversation. It sets too hard a division between the incentives in the local game, and the game that the rest of the world is in. It risks making NZ an insular academic backwater. 

If the government wants to fund more research on NZ-specific policy areas, particularly with a focus on Māori and Pacifica issues, it could boost Marsden for a dedicated funding line in it. Or set its own dedicated fund. And remember that PBRF also weighs external research grants.

The current set-up would more than double-weight the research portfolios of Māori academics doing work in theoretical physics, or abstract higher-order maths, or a host of other areas where there really isn't any relevant local-penalty. The local penalty applies for work in locally relevant social science questions that aren't quite aligned with questions of interest in the top international journals. I can see the problem in encouraging research in locally relevant stuff, and can see how that would particularly apply for Māori and Pacifica research. But I would have thought that just setting better contestable research funding in those areas would have made more sense.

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