How to Manage Research Professors: Advice from the admiralty in the Age of Sail

Readers of the CLAHRC WM News Blog will know that the Director has recently changed his university employment from Birmingham to Warwick. He did so in order to direct a Centre for International Research – dubbed a ‘CLAHRC for Africa’ by his new boss, Professor Peter Winstanley, Dean of Warwick Medical School. Changing from one institution to another makes one reflect on how Universities try to get the best out of their research professors.

The British Royal Navy had a problem with its captains ­in the Age of Sail – they habitually failed to engage with the enemy. Furthermore, since French and Spanish captains were no braver, ships would return empty-handed. Yet, by the end of the century, British captains had a ‘kill rate’ of over 5 to 1.[1] Brittania, with ships and guns that were no better than others, had come to ‘rule the waves’. A recent article describes how this was achieved.[2]

First, the admiralty changed its rules, allowing admirals and captains to keep a much larger portion of the ‘booty’. At the same time they hired many more captains than there were ships, and shore-bound captains were retained on half-pay. Captains were made to attack in a line so that they remained in view of the admiral. Additionally, although it is disadvantageous from a technical point of view, they were made to attack upwind so that they could not ‘fall off’ the enemy. The price for failure could be harsh; when Admiral John Byng appeared to engage half-heartedly with the French, he was court-martialled, taken up to the quarterdeck and shot!

Possibly I stretch a point in drawing an analogy between sea-captains and research professors, but let us see how a university would look if it took a page from the admiralty’s book:

  1. It would incentivise professors, by allowing them / their department to retain some of the ‘over-head’ on blue chip research grants.
  2. It would institute performance-related pay.
  3. It would have a transparent accounting system to ensure that all professors ‘washed their face’.
  4. It would not retain people who required cross-subsidy in perpetuity.

Come to think, it would look very much like the University of Warwick!

— Richard Lilford, Director CLAHRC WM

References:

  1. Lewis MA. A Social History of the Navy: 1793-1815. London: Allen & Unwin. 1960.
  2. Allen DW. The British Navy Rules: Monitoring and Incompatible Incentives in the Age of Fighting Sail. Explor Econ Hist. 2002; 39: 204-231.
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