Category Archives: Education

Topics related to the education sector (usually the tertiary or Higher Education sector).

Research brain drain from the global south

The Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Dr Adam Habib, recently argued that universities in the global north are taking the best and the brightest from the global south and failing to return them.

360info asked me to reflect on this for a special issue on the education brain drain, and write about it from the perspective of research in the global south. What I wrote builds on previous ideas I’ve published and blogged about around the idea of “trickle down science” and decolonising research. This is an edited version of the 360info article.

The indigenous Bajau Laut of southeast Asia live a nomadic existence at sea. They have lived on houseboats for more than 1,000 years, free-diving for marine resources to sustain themselves. Research on the human genetic changes that allowed the Bajau Laut to adapt to this life at sea was published in 2019 in Cell. All but one of the article’s authors came from developed economies. The one Indonesian researcher had no relevant disciplinary background and appeared to be logistical support. The Indonesian government saw the study as exploitative and legislated to restrict overseas researchers from fly-in, fly-out, “grab the data and run” research. 

It’s an example of a common problem: the world’s poorest economies suffer health and development deficits that require research, but they are least likely to do research. When they do research with developed economy collaborators, it is often not the most relevant research to the developed economy.

The highest-income economies graduate the most PhDs per capita — the principal qualification for researchers — whilst the poorest economies graduate the least. The current stop-gap solution, critiqued by Dr Habib, is for developing economies to send their best and brightest students away to overseas PhD programs, often in developed economies. But the PhD experience in developed economies is usually geared towards research training involving sophisticated techniques and equipment unavailable at home. The student cannot replicate the research environment when they return to their home institutions and fall into an intellectual suzerainty. 

A supplementary approach to improving research capacity is through research collaborations. Many developed economy researchers enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with developing economy researchers. The developed economy researchers offer much-needed injections of capital and equipment; they can also provide experience using the latest collection techniques or analytic methods. Through the collaborations, developing economy researchers grow their skills and their networks. They are also much more likely to become authors of well-cited journal articles, which improves their international standing. 

However, significant concerns have been raised recently about the nature of the research collaborations between developed and developing economies. The concerns pivot on whether the relationship is exploitative. Are the collaborators from developing economies equal partners in the research, or are they logistical support, as in the case of the Bajau Laut study? Improving research capacity in developing economies needs to be realistic about the challenges and the structural deficits. There needs to be mutual respect. And it needs to be resilient to foreseeable and unforeseeable shocks. 

Around 10-years ago, the Wellcome Trust funded a project to establish a virtual institute for interdisciplinary research of infectious diseases of poverty in four countries (five institutions) in West Africa. Two developed economy institutions provided support. Nigeria and Mali had Boko Haram insurgencies during the project, and Côte d’Ivoire had a coup. Unfortunately, these external shocks are not atypical examples of the challenges of research capacity strengthening.

Political upheaval notwithstanding, the North-South-South (NSS) approach taken in developing the virtual institute was promising. The project networked developing economy institutions with some developed economy institutions, and it focused on the institutes, not on individual researcher capacity—which is easily lost. It is more holistic and looks to the development of infrastructure, governance, and human capital. Because the approach is based on a multilateral partnership, there are opportunities for mutual support within and between institutions and individual researchers. Governance developments in one institution can be replicated and adapted in another. Depending on the nature of the research, infrastructure can also be shared, such as cloud computing and gene sequencers.

The Norwegian government uses this approach, as does the World Health Organization, albeit in a slightly different form. The NSS approach also stands in marked contrast to supporting one-off projects or funding individual research degrees. The NSS PhD training is based in the developing economy institutions with support from the developed economy institutions in the network, including support from supervisors in the developing economies institutions. The approach simultaneously builds the developing economies’ supervisory capacity and decreases the likelihood of brain drain. The research is also driven by the relevance of the research to the developing economies and utilises technology that is available. 

It is not possible to mandate mutual respect. Developed economy institutions that have been successful over the past half-century in the traditional engagement models — “send your brightest and we will train them”, or “here’s some money, send the data” — may find changes in the status quo unappealing. However, there is no doubt that the NSS approach requires a different mindset, particularly in the institutions of the global north. The research capacity needs of the global south are enormous. The traditional approaches can not meet the needs because they do not scale. New global north institutional players will be needed, and they won’t have the baggage of past practice to weigh them down.

The original article was published under Creative Commons by 360info™. This is an edited version.

Local causation and implementation science

If you want to move a successful intervention from here (where it was first identified) to there (a plurality of new settings), spend your time understanding the context of the intervention. Understand the context of success. Implementation Science—the science of moving successful interventions from here to there—assumes a real (in the world effect) that can be generalised to new settings. In our latest (open access) article, recently published in Social Science and Medicine, we re-imagine that presumption.

As researchers and development specialists, we are taught to focus on causes as singular things: A causes B. Intervention A reduces infant mortality (B1), increases crop yields (B2), keeps girls in school longer (B3), or…. When we discover the new intervention that will improve the lives of the many, we naturally get excited. We want to implement it everywhere. And yet, the new intervention so often fails in new settings. It isn’t as effective as advertised and/or it’s more expensive. The intervention simply does not scale-up and potentially results in harm. Effort and resources are diverted from those things that already work better there to implement the new intervention, which showed so much promise in the original setting, here.

The intervention does not fail in new settings because the cause-effect never existed. It fails in new settings because causes are local. The effect that was observed here was not caused by A alone. The intervention was not a singular cause. A causes B within a context that allows the relationship between cause and effect to be manifest. The original research in which A was identified had social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and physical properties. Some of those properties are required for the realisation of the cause-effect. This means that generalisation is really about re-engineeering context. We need to make sure the target settings have the the right contextual factors in place for the intervention to work. We are re-creating local contexts. The implementation problem is one of understanding the re-engineering that is required.


Mr Grammarly writes a novel

Mr Grammarly, the Grammarly family parrot (a New Zealand Kea). Renowned for its literary abilities and loathing of the passive voice.

Grammarly is a web-based service to support writers. I use it a lot but worry that Grammarly will homogenise the literary voice until we all sound like the Grammarly family’s pet—a parrot named “Mr Grammarly”. 

Grammarly provides advice on correcting punctuation, word use, and reducing the use of the passive voice (a challenge for anyone taught academic writing before 2005). It can also score clarity, engagement, and tone of delivery.

I find it incredibly useful, and I recommend it to my graduate students and staff. When it works, it’s fabulous, and as a native English speaker, the probability of horrible failure is low. I am not obliged to take all of Grammarly’s suggestions, and I have enough of a sense of the language to know when I can break a rule or when Grammarly is wrong. Non-native English speakers may not have the same advantage and need to work harder to make those decisions. Is the suggestion for a change in word good or bad, is the rephrased sentence clearer?

I became so sick of reading poorly written student drafts with basic spelling and grammatical mistakes that I began telling my students if they had not checked the text against Grammarly, I was not interested in reading it. And then, I started to receive drafts with bizarre word choices and ill-phrased sentences. I ran the drafts through Grammarly, and they came through with no suggested corrections.

Lesson number one, use Grammarly but use it with care.

I still had had this nagging concern about the homogenisation of the voice, and I decided to test Grammarly against great literature. My guess (let’s call it a hypothesis) was that Grammarly would reduce poetry to blancmange. As a well trained dust-bowl empiricist, I decided to test it. 

I cut-and-pasted the first page of three novels into Grammarly.

F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s, The Great Gatsby received an overall score of 86. There were six hard to read sentences, one suggested rephrasing, and a handful of suggested corrections. The “hard to read sentences” were the most significant challenge because (in the absence of a suggested rephrasing) I needed to keep Fitzgerald’s voice but rewrite. It was easier than I anticipated. Most of the “hard to read sentences” are “hard to read” because they are long—a series of full-stop separable clauses that Fitzgerald separated with semicolons. Grammarly and I could get Fitzgerald up to an overall score of 99, and the literary world rejoiced.

Ernest Hemingway‘s, The Old Man and the Sea received a very creditable overall score of 92. I thought that his short, terse sentences would give him an edge over Fitzgerald, and I was right. His use of commas, however, needed work. By accepting every change and a minimal loss of poetry (those island boys needed to learn to speak better Grammarly English), I could bring Hemingway up to a perfect score.

Finally, I Grammarly checked Douglas Stuart‘s Shuggie BainBooker Prize-winning novel for 2020. Straight out of the gate, he had an overall score of 99. It was the phrase “leaving him with the thankless task of running his deli counter and her rotisserie stand all alone” that denied him a perfect score. I didn’t think I could do better—sorry, Mr Stuart. If only Fitzgerald and Hemingway had Grammarly!

Grammarly does have an in-built preference for a particular style of punctuation, the active voice, and short sentences. These three preferences make sense. Grammarly supports readability, and literature is not necessarily about readability. Ask James Joyce! Short sentences are cognitively more straightforward than are long sentences with embedded clauses. The active voice makes it more transparent who did what to whom. Consistent, rule-based punctuation also reduces the cognitive load.

Nonetheless, beyond the use of active sentences and a preference for short sentences, Grammarly is remarkably good at leaving the authorial voice untouched. That was lesson two. We were not all going to sound like the family parrot.

You will be pleased to know that this 666-word piece has a perfect score. I wrote it clearly, the delivery was “just right”, and you found it engaging. I hope the Man Booker Committee will appreciate my 2022 novel written in short, active, well-punctuated sentences.

Advice to junior academics, “Protect your CV!”

Board Teaching School University Research [CC0 Public Domain;]

Some years ago I was asked to give a staff seminar on “Developing an Academic Career.” The request came at the same time that a number of my colleagues were under significant pressure to undertake more teaching. I suggested in the seminar that the best way to advance an academic career was to allocate a minimum (but sufficient) effort to the teaching, and allocate the greatest effort towards research. The advice was stated in terms of protect one’s CV; i.e., allocate effort to those activities that are truly rewarded within the academic world.

Since giving that seminar, I have been approached by numerous colleagues thanking me for the frank and contrary advice. I know a number of them have since been promoted and attribute that success, in some small part, to pushing back against demands for more teaching, and focusing effort on developing research.

A standard, junior academic appointment is based on a mix of research, teaching and administration. The mix is usually something like 40% Research, 40% Teaching, and 20% Administration. In a rational world this would mean allocating an appropriate amount of time to each kind of task. And in this rational world, promotion and recognition would follow accordingly.

Before I go any further, I’d like you to complete a small exercise. Name half a dozen academics who are world renowned for their teaching. You know the kind of person I mean. She is an academically sound teacher at the top of her game, who can develop curricula, and hold small groups or crowded lecture theatres in the palm of her hand. She is as comfortable in a flipped classroom as she is in a tutorial or a problem-based learning session. This person is not simply a world-class educationalist, her peers, globally, recognise her as such.

Maybe you can name one or even two of these teachers. I can’t name any. Zero. And I suspect that is true for most academics. We all know great teachers. In every university department there is one or two of them who really connect with their students. But they are unknown outside a relatively small circle of staff and students. Here in lies the problem.

World class universities do not set out to hire world class teachers, because there is no such thing. They want to hire adequate teachers, who are world class researchers.  We know who the world class researchers are because there are well recognised (though admittedly flawed) metrics for evaluating this. If you want to develop a strong academic career, weight your effort towards the research and the accepted metrics of success.

I have watched worthy colleagues become suckers to an indifferent departmental system that needs someone (pretty much anyone) in a classroom. They are beseeched, cajoled and bullied to do more teaching than they should because, so the argument goes, it helps out the department. It shows what a great team player they are and will undoubtedly be recognised and rewarded at some future time in some unspecified way. DO NOT BELIEVE IT!

You should absolutely be a team player, and do your fair share of teaching. You should also appreciate that teaching can be intrinsically rewarding and is an important part of academic life. But universities are flawed organisations that do not have good mechanisms for rewarding and promoting on the basis of teaching performance. Doing more teaching is not rewarded, and your nobility in teaching more to allow others to pursue a full academic career is likely to be a source of later regret.