Fluctuat et Mergitur

Your voice of reason at Paris-Saclay

GoodUni Research
As we have reported before, 5 engineering schools have left Paris-Saclay to form their own university. Today, we want to learn about the organization of research at this new university. For this purpose, we have talked to Dr. Naibaf — a researcher from Télécom ParisTech who seems to have an opinion on just about everything, be it the master programs, the organization of the semester, or bureaucracy. It is hence no surprise that he also has an opinion on research:
In the past, our goal has been to accumulate as many affiliations as possible on our papers. In our best times, we could have 6 affiliations simultaneously: LTCI, CNRS, Télécom ParisTech, Paris-Saclay, Institute Mines-Télécom, plus the department. This is not to mention the historical name of the institute (“Institut Télécom”), and the historical names of our school: École professionnelle supérieure des postes et télégraphes, École supérieure des postes et télégraphes, École nationale supérieure des postes, télégraphes et téléphones, and École nationale supérieure des télécommunications.
This has led to a refreshing diversity of paper signatures over time, which we exemplify here by excerpts from papers by a single researcher:
These are 11 different signatures over the past 5 years. Dr. Naibaf explains: “We thought that international visibility is computed as the logarithm of the number of affiliations on our papers: the more affiliations we have, the more visibility we have.” This long-standing practice, however, is now about to change. In a document known as the GoodUni document, the engineering schools have decided to bring their policies in line with international best practices. The document summarizes quite plainly what everybody knows anyway: “By constantly adding more names to our papers, and by constantly changing these names, we were actually deteriorating our brand.” As a consequence, the document stipulates a new measure of visibility: Visibility is now estimated as the value that the university creates, divided by the number of labels that it attaches to this value (shown below). In order to maximize visibility, the new university has to create more value (in terms of publications, industry impact, patents, and successful alumni), and attach less labels to it. In this spirit, the document proposes that all NewUni members shall appear in public only under a single label, and that they shall sign their publications with a single affiliation: the future name of NewUni.

Re-Organization

The GoodUni document insists that the new strategy is not just a cosmetic change. It actually goes along with a real change of organization on the ground. Dr. Naibaf explains:
In the old times, we would constantly create new institutes and layers of organization. The problem is that this process is accumulative: You can add nodes, but you can never delete nodes. Once some entity has its own budget, it cannot go away anymore. It will develop all kinds of activities to justify its existence. The only way in which it can disappear is by external force or unforeseen events.
This has led to a proliferation of layers of organization, which we illustrate here:
This system was designed to support the researchers by organizing them, guiding them, and animating them. However, Dr. Naibaf observes: “With its complexity, the current system has so far generated more work than it has solved problems. Let’s be honest: The only thing a researcher needs is access to funding and students. Everything else is just overhead.”

The new organization
The GoodUni document is more explicit: “The proliferation of organizational layers has led to an increase in complexity, a deterioration of visibility, a waste of money, and a bureaucratic nightmare.” Therefore, the document stipulates that instances will not only be created, but also be abolished when they are no longer needed. In this spirit, the new university will be radically re-organized to consist of just three layers: Research teams, a middle layer, and NewUni (shown on the right). The middle layer redistributes shared money, and makes hiring decisions. This layer could be the school, the department, or the lab. Why did the choice fall on the schools in the end? Dr. Naibaf explains: “They just couldn’t agree on the middle layer, so they left it to be the schools for the moment — to evolve into faculties later down the road.”

There is no need to have a separate structure for research, and another one for teaching. It is sufficient to have a director for research and a director for teaching on each layer — but in a single structure. If the thematic structure does not fit the organizational structure, or if different audiences (students, industrials, sponsors) have to see different structures, then this is a sign that the system is flawed, and that it has to be changed. GoodUni says: “If the structure is well done, it serves all audiences equally.” With this, NewUni is finally in line with the big international universities, which also have just a single middle layer. It can be labs, departments, schools, or faculties — but not all four of them.

Rethinking Collaboration

The GoodUni document also heralds a change in thinking concerning collaborations. Dr. Naibaf explains:
In the past, we thought that what researchers needed most were additional collaborations with other research institutes. So we would give funding to projects that promised collaborations between different institutes — the more interdisciplinary the better. The slogan was “Si tu veux que tout soit bon, fais une collaboration.”
A recent poll among researchers
In the frame of the GoodUni initiative, the institutes now had the idea to actually ask the researchers what they really needed. The answer came as a surprise: Only 0% of researchers were in need of additional collaborations with other institutes (see poll results on the right). In fact, most researchers were happy with the collaborations they had. Some researchers were even happy and productive without any collaborations. The GoodUni document summarizes: “Research does not become better just because it happens through collaboration. A collaboration is always a means to an end, and never an end in itself. If we give more funding to projects just because they are collaborations, we pay the opportunity costs of not funding projects that are maybe scientifically more reasonable. ”

Where did you get to know your co-authors?
Before this, the partner institutes would create alliances for political reasons, then fund collaborative projects within these alliances, and then use these projects to justify the creation of the alliance. This would give rise to artificial collaborations, which served politics more than science. Dr. Naibaf explains: “This is not how research works. Researchers first have the scientific question, and then find people to solve it — not vice versa.” Needless to say: The researchers believe that they are themselves best positioned to find those people. Now where do they find them? Fluctuat&Mergitur has investigated where one example researcher got to know the co-authors of his papers in the last 5 years (figure on the right). The results show that only 1 out of the 49 collaborators was found through an interdisciplinary funding call. Most co-authors are either brought along by other co-authors or recommended by them. The second largest group of co-authors are those from the same team — including visiting researchers. The third largest group came into touch via Web search — either to apply for a position, or to find a person whom they had heard of.

All that is expected from NewUni is to provide a supportive environment for this process. In this spirit, the GoodUni document says: “We shall encourage researchers to get to know each other (through social events, seminars, and team visits), but we shall not make collaboration a prerequisite for a funding.” This is because “our sole goal in research is to keep our researchers happy and productive. Collaboration shall only ever happen as corollary of this, and not as a prerequisite to it.”

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