Funding data collection on inequitable academic processes and practices

There are many aspects of the academic system that are unfair, inequitable, or just no longer fit for purpose in today’s world. Yet we are bound to work under these processes, which for many academics means we are either finding ways to work around them, working under them reluctantly, or leaving academia because of them.

A good way to challenge the status quo in academia is to collect data on the problem. Anyone who has tried to address problematic systems or improve academic processes will know how hard it can be to achieve the necessary change with only anecdotal experiences to support your arguments. Academia is an evidence-based sector, and having access to published peer reviewed literature to support the need for change can make a world of difference.

Some of the sorts of issues I’m thinking about here include (but are not limited to):

  • Institutional policies or systems that affect our work life balance, like parental leave and support frameworks
  • The effect of internal institutional culture and politics on career paths
  • Initiatives to improve equity and diversity in processes like recruitment, postgraduate scholarships, editorial and peer review systems etc.
  • Access to and distribution of grants and funding programs
  • Allocation and measurement of staff service loads
  • Institutional support (or lack thereof) for outreach activities
  • ECR support initiatives (anything from internal seed funding to the post-PhD eligibility period to qualify as an ECR)

There is limited published research on most of these issues, and the bulk of papers I’ve found through searches focus mostly on gender diversity patterns in various parts of the academic system. These papers also appear to be mostly authored by researchers in humanities or management disciplines that already research these issues as their ‘normal’ job (and are therefore more likely to be able to fund these studies through relevant research projects).

But disciplinary norms can vary widely, and there are important perspectives to be had from other disciplines that can also guide positive change. This means we need more research papers on problems, issues and solutions relevant to academic practice and process written by researchers with direct experience, even when it’s not their day job to research these issues.  

Some examples include:

All these papers were written by ecologists and biologists. These types of papers are often developed as ‘side projects’, with limited funding and by authors willing to partition time from their funded work to work on it. As an ecologist, if I want to collect data on any of these issues with the aim to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, I need funding to pay for research and data collection support (including lengthy human ethics applications). But it’s not my ‘official’ area of expertise, so it would be impossible to win funds through my usual grant circuit, and I can’t spend existing grant funds on collecting these types of data.

This in itself is an equity issue and highlights a gap in the funding circuit that needs to be addressed. Where are the small grant programs to support academic research that interrogates the processes and practices that define our work?

This could be something offered by professional societies and peak bodies, or internally by institutions. I’m not talking about million-dollar funding programs. Small grants of a few thousand dollars, with quick turnarounds on decisions and no onerous application processes, can support the necessary data collection and analysis to identify key problems and solutions that address inequitable academic processes and practices.

© Manu Saunders 2023

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