Star performers?

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Much was made last week about announced changes to the performance reviews that public servants must go through every year. These changes will come into effect in 2014, and apparently the main thrust of the changes is to make is easier to fire servants that aren’t pulling their weight.

Upon hearing it, I wondered whether this would really change anything for research scientists. I actually don’t think it will. As it is, we undergo performance review every year. However, in contrast to this latest “stick” announced to bring workers into line, we have a carrot. Unlike many positions in the public service, we are incentivised to perform via promotion. There are 5 levels of Research Scientists, and one can apply to promote from one level to the next. These promotions are based on many of the same indicators as in academic circles- number and impact of publications, ability to secure funding and lead research programs, successful supervision of students, committee work, as well as some additional stuff in there about “client services” (the name they use for providing internal science advice).

In my time as a research scientist, I’ve not heard of anyone other scientists that were so poor at their jobs that they would have needed a simpler mechanism to be let go. That’s not to say there haven’t been lots of water cooler chats about “I wish that asshole such and such would get fired”, but that’s just the usual personal issues, versus one’s ability as a scientist generally (though one might argue that an inability to collaborate effectively with your colleagues might be something that should probably raise flags these days). It may also be that I’ve not talked to the right people.

Instead, those research scientists that can’t seem to cut it as scientists all too often seem to end up as our managers and directors. My only hope for these rule changes then is that they will provide some means for tossing some of the dead weight at the top. However, based on how well management seems to do at moving the messages from the deputy ministers office to us, and squashing any real discussions about legitimate issues we have regarding improving the current situation we face, I suspect that these new rules won’t be readily applied to them.

If anyone should be worried about these rule changes, in my opinion, it’s the biologists and technicians who are doing real science. There are a number of folks in the public service with PhD’s in biologist positions, and even folks in technical positions, who are happily conducting good science and publishing papers. One possible concern for this group might be whether this could be used to actually tell them to stop writing papers and leading research, and just focus on the tasks they are told to focus on. However, with few details about what this announcement really means, all it can do is lead to speculation (which there seems to be plenty of in the media reports on the topic- and my musings here).

Here’s another insightful comment on who these new rule changes could be applied to.

UPDATE [3 June 2013]: Our union (PIPSC) has also released a statement to it’s members on the topic.