University Bureaucracy Is Driving Me Mad!!!

I understand that where there are institutions, there must also be bureaucracy. I know that when I work with a new university, I need to fill in a New Supplier Form for their records, and someone will have to raise a purchase order before I can get paid. This is how most universities work. The initial form-filling can be a bit of a pain, and it can take a while to get set up on the system, but once that’s done, the admin is usually straightforward. I do a job, a purchase order arrives in my inbox, I create an invoice for the specified amount bearing the purchase order number, email it off, then some time later the money appears in my bank account.

That kind of administrative overhead seems reasonable and proportionate for the kind of work I do and the amounts I charge. Most of my invoices are in three figures or the small end of four. However, some universities have a massive administrative overhead for new suppliers. I’ve just come across one at the other end of a very long spectrum. Nameless University requires me to do the following:

  1. Complete a New Supplier Form
  2. Complete a Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire
  3. Read and understand their Terms and Conditions for Purchase
  4. Complete a Supplier Engagement Tool online

The New Supplier Form is on a spreadsheet and has 22 questions. The Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire is two pages of A4 and has several of the same questions that are on the New Supplier Form.

The Terms and Conditions for Purchase are 11 pages long. Being savvy in these matters, I skipped straight to the insurance section, where I found that they want me to hold £5m in public liability insurance and £1m in professional indemnity insurance. My own insurers, in whose interests it is to sell me as much insurance as possible, have told me that I only need £2m in public liability and £250,000 in professional indemnity for the kind of work I do. To raise my cover to the levels demanded by Nameless University would cost me more than I will earn from my work with them.

The online Supplier Engagement Tool was the icing on the cake. Sample question: ‘Is there someone in your organisation who is responsible for sustainability? To qualify, sustainability must form 50% or more of the person’s job role.’ Yes, there is someone in my organisation who is responsible for sustainability. It’s me. I make sure we buy recycled paper and compost our teabags. But is that 50% of my job role? Is it heck. For a start it only takes about one minute a week to ensure that my business is as sustainable as possible, and for a second thing, if I spent half my time on sustainability, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living.

Most of the questions in the Supplier Engagement Tool were irrelevant to me, so I ended up answering almost all of them with the ‘other, please specify’ option. At the end of the process I got a personalised action plan for my business. This turned out to be a pdf of a single page with my company name at the top and NOTHING ELSE AT ALL.

I said in an email to the person commissioning my work that Nameless University was by far the most bureaucratic I had come across (it is). That person forwarded my email to the Head of Procurement. The HoP wrote me a lengthy email saying, among other things, that it is ‘standard business practice’ to operate in this way for any contract over £1,000 in value. (As this is the first university which has done this to me, I’m not sure what the standard is here, let alone the business; even the local authorities I used to work with didn’t operate like this for costs under five figures.)

The HoP did acknowledge that there was duplication between the spreadsheet and the questionnaire, and said they are ‘looking to merge the documents into one in the future’ (a job that could be done in five minutes flat). The HoP also said that ‘insurances can be negotiated… with suppliers such as yourself’ – so why not put that in the Terms and Conditions of Purchase? Some suppliers will reach that point and conclude that they are ineligible. Bureaucracy is not only a nuisance, it can also exclude, which is unlikely to be in anyone’s best interests.

Apparently the Supplier Engagement Tool will enable Nameless University to ensure that all their suppliers ‘fully comply with the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act‘. I know I can drive myself hard at times, but I didn’t realise I was at risk of enslaving myself. More seriously, this Act is only applicable to businesses with a turnover above £36million. The UK Government evidently understands the need to keep red tape to a minimum for small and micro businesses; why can’t Nameless University get its head around this too?

Most galling of all, it will take me a couple of hours to jump through all their hoops. I’m debating whether to reply to the HoP asking who I should invoice for my time. What do you think? Is that a good way to make a point? Or is it a good way to shoot myself in the foot?

Ten Top Tips For Becoming An Indie Researcher

independence.jpgPeople often ask me how to become an independent researcher. Then they ask me how I became an independent researcher, which is a different question. The answer to the latter is no help to anyone as I became an independent researcher by accident. Here’s the short version of that story. In January 1999 I was asked to do a piece of research as a one-off. I agreed, did a reasonably good job, people got to hear about it and I was asked to do more. I realised I enjoyed the work, signed up for an MSc in Social Research Methods in September 1999, got my PhD in 2006, and never looked back.

For the first 10 years or so, almost all my clients were local and national governments, charities, and public sector partnerships. Then we had the change of government in 2010, swiftly followed by a recession, in which most of the people in my networks took early retirement or redundancy or were demoted back from management to direct service delivery roles. My company’s financial year runs from August to July, and 2011-12 was the worst; the company’s turnover was less than £11,000. I had to get a part-time job for two years from September 2011, but – with a huge amount of support from my partner – managed to keep my business afloat.

Over the last five years I have reinvented myself as someone who works with academia. I still work with clients from other sectors, but these days the bulk of my work comes from universities. This reinvention has involved a lot of writing – two books, several journal articles, a bunch of e-books, this blog, tens of thousands of tweets, more of all those in the pipeline – and a lot of networking. Luckily I’m good at, and enjoy, both networking and writing.

So that’s my story, but it’s mostly made up of accidents, and so is not a route anyone else can follow. However, I do have ten top tips for people who want to adopt the indie lifestyle.

  1. Be able and willing to live on less money than your employed contemporaries. The day rates can be high but you won’t get paid work for every day, and some weeks or months you will have no paid work at all. There are none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sickness pay, so you need to earn enough to cover those. Some years you will make more money than others, but the surplus from any good years needs to be put away to cushion you in the bad years, or you risk needing to give up being independent altogether. So if you crave luxury – perhaps even if you want, or have, children – the indie lifestyle is not for you.
  1. Be highly motivated. Some days you’ll have meetings, but much of the time there’s nothing to make you get out of bed but your own free will. Some people think that’s all there is to independent work: highly paid jobs for clients and a lot of time off. Thw6 is far from the case. You have to run your own business, which means doing your accounts (or earning enough to pay an accountant to do them for you, which still requires you to prepare a considerable amount of paperwork), marketing your services to help you gain further work, sorting out your own continuing professional development, and so on.
  1. Be very well organised. Sometimes you will have several client projects running at the same time, and you’ll need to keep on top of each of those, plus the needs of your own business. Even when you’re really busy with paid work, you should spend at least 10% of your time working on your business, making sure you keep up with your administration and marketing as a minimum.
  1. Networking is essential. You won’t have colleagues down the corridor who you can wander along to see for a chat when there’s something on your mind. At times you’ll need help and without a network you may have nobody to ask. Also, networking should be part of your marketing strategy, as it will help to bring you work. Network online as well as offline. Twitter is currently a very useful networking tool for researchers. I’ve had work from several sources that has come directly through Twitter, from people who have never met me in person.
  1. Keep up to date with developments in your field. When you’re employed this happens almost imperceptibly: you hear about new initiatives and legislation in meetings, relevant newsletters arrive in your inbox, organisational briefings ensure that nothing vital is missed. As an indie, you have to sign up for as much relevant free information as you can, decide what of the rest is worth paying for, and make time to read it all.
  1. Use your time productively. When work is thin on the ground it’s easy to fritter away hours, even days, surfing the internet or doing housework. When you’re busy it’s tempting to spend long hours at your computer, but it makes more sense to ‘work smart, not hard’. I have learned from experience that I can get more done working six to eight focused hours in a day than putting in 10-12 hour days. The workload is lumpy, though, and there are times when there is nothing for it but to work long hours. Try to keep those times to a minimum, and when necessary, organise your tasks so that you can do the easier, more routine work when you’re tired.
  1. Look after your health. This is a huge priority for those of us with no sick pay. Eat sensibly, get enough rest, take exercise. Make yourself have regular short breaks away from your desk even when you’re really busy. And be prepared to drag yourself out to work in physical, and emotional, states that would have an employed person reaching for the self-certification form. I have gone out to work for clients with sweat running down my back from a fever, immediately after hearing news of a bereavement, with a badly injured foot.
  1. Take proper breaks. I have at least one holiday a year, though the nature of those holidays depends on my finances: in the lean years, I might simply stay in the house of a family member or friend, while they’re away on holiday themselves, for a change of scene.
  1. Think at least twice before accepting unpaid work. Sometimes there are good reasons for volunteering. It might be a way of gaining valuable experience, or something you can give in exchange for something you want such as a conference place, or it may offer excellent networking opportunities. But when you are an indie researcher, time is your most valuable asset. People will ask you to do all sorts of things for free – even governments will – and you need to be sure that whatever you do will also benefit you in some way, and won’t take up too much of your precious time.
  1. Write for publication, even if you don’t plan to work with academia. Published writing looks great on your CV and is a marketing asset. What you write, and for whom, and where you publish your work, is for you to decide. But make it professionally relevant and write it well. Once you’ve got a piece in a newspaper, or produced a zine, or had an academic journal article accepted, shout about it all over social media and anywhere else that might help to increase your audience and networks.

If you’ve read all that and the prospect of becoming an indie researcher still excites you, then go for it, and good luck!

When A Contract Ends

finish lineI’m putting the finishing touches to the report of a research project that’s been running for the last 18 months. And then it’ll be over. Which is a bit sad, for a number of reasons.

First, the work is for a national organisation, but unusually that organisation is based close to where I live in the Midlands of England. So, unlike most, this job hasn’t involved a lot of travelling: much of the work has been done within half an hour’s drive of my office.

Second, I’ve been working with another researcher, a colleague I met for the first time on the day we went to be interviewed for this job. I liked him then and my respect and appreciation for him has grown throughout the project. He’s responsive, thoughtful, caring, creative, and generally a terrific collaborator. I will miss working with him.

Third, it’s been an interesting, complex project, evaluating a community-based advocacy service for older people with cancer. The work is multi-faceted and that makes it a real challenge to investigate it fully and come up with suitable recommendations for taking the work forward.

Fourth, it’s paid some of the bills. These kinds of longer-term contracts, that provide a basic level of income for a period of time, don’t come along so often but are invaluable for indie researchers.

Letting go of a project can be hard for anyone, but there are some specific areas of difficulty for indie researchers. Commissioners don’t think to get back in touch to tell us how our work is being used, and seem surprised if we email or phone to ask. We have very little say in how our work is disseminated, and sometimes it’s not disseminated at all, which can be really frustrating. And unlike our academic colleagues, we don’t have the requirement to publish that can keep the relationships formed during a project alive for months and years after completion.

So in many ways I’m sorry to see this contract end, but the pill is very thoroughly sugared by the new contract I landed earlier this month. Without that I think I’d be in deep mourning. But this time it really does feel as though, as one door is closing, another opens.

Society For Indie Researchers?

SRA logo 300dpi.jpgI was invited into an interesting conversation on Twitter the other day, between @DrNomyn, @deborahbrian, @lianamsilva, @readywriting, @darthur62 and @donnarosemary. At one point @deborahbrian said, ‘What we need, too, are professional organisations for independent scholars – do these exist?’ That was when @DrNomyn invited me in, asking, ‘How hard would it be to start one?’

I replied on Twitter but, as this is something to which I have given some thought, I had rather more to say than would fit into 140 characters (or 80, more like, what with all those names already in the tweet). I have long wanted a society for independent researchers. (Despite my scholarly credentials, I identify as an indie researcher rather than an indie scholar. I think this is because I’ve never been, or aspired to be, a salaried academic. Nevertheless, there is clearly significant overlap, and I think such a society might well have room for both.) And I have considered starting one, because, as @DrNomyn implied, it wouldn’t be that difficult.

The hard part would be keeping it going.

I think there are two main reasons that would be hard. First, there aren’t actually that many indie researchers/scholars who would be interested in such a society, and most of us are insanely busy, so getting people involved in anything beyond initial sign-up would be difficult. (I know this because I’m on the Board of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), which makes considerable efforts to involve and support indie researchers, most of which are poorly attended/used despite what people say they want in the biennial members’ survey). Second, and partly as a result, such a society wouldn’t generate enough income to pay people to run it, so it would all be done by volunteers, and as I believe I may have mentioned on this blog once or twice, the last thing indie researchers need is more unpaid work.

A third, subsidiary problem, is that there is a high turnover of indie researchers and scholars. People like me, who are resolutely indie and have been for, in my case, 17 years now, are rare. Quite a high proportion of indie researchers or scholars are people who have been made redundant, or whose contract has finished, and who haven’t yet secured other work, so they set up as indie while also looking for jobs in the hope of earning some money to tide them over. Some of them may stick with indie work, either through choice or necessity, but many will go back into employment sooner or later. Others like the look of the indie lifestyle, so set up as indie with every intention of making a go of it, then find they can’t make enough money, or they don’t like working for themselves, or they hit some other problem. (I felt for @darthur62 who said he couldn’t maintain indie work because his networks fell apart; that’s what happened to me after the change of government here in 2010, and I’ve been very lucky to be able to rebuild my business). And some are successful indies who are seduced away from their indie work by an organisation with an offer that is (or appears) too good to refuse.

I make no criticism of anyone in these positions. Any of them could be, or could have been, me. Frankly, if any organisation offered to pay me a decent salary just to write stuff, I’d be there like a shot. But the churn in the indie population is another factor that I think would make it hard to maintain a society for independent researchers and/or scholars.

So my advice, as given on Twitter, is: find a society near you that caters for indie scholars or researchers, join it, and get involved. I’d recommend the SRA for anyone in or near the UK/Ireland. They offer events, training, support with research ethics, good deals on insurance, a magazine and newsletter, a directory of members’ services, and we’re currently trialling access to academic literature for members, with other benefits in the pipeline. There is an equivalent-ish organisation in Australia called the Market and Social Research Society, though some tweeps expressed disquiet at the thought of being lumped in with the market researchers. There will also be discipline-specific societies, as @deborahbrian pointed out, for e.g. educational researchers, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Each society should be able to give you information about how many indies they have in their membership, and what they do to support independent scholars or researchers, before you join.

I was looking forward to meeting other independent Fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences. Turns out I’m the first. There are one or two who are indie now, after decades as professors, but that’s not the same. I would love it if there was a society for indie researchers and scholars, and am rather hoping someone will disagree with me enough to start one. I’d certainly join.

Costing A Research Project

 

currency-signs-33431_960_720Following on from my last post about funding, I thought it might be useful to explain a few things about how I cost a research project. There are two parts to this process: setting a day rate, and working out how long the project will take.

My day rate is flexible, depending on the nature of the commissioning or funding body and the size and nature of the project. For example, I will charge less for a small project for a local charity than for a large project for a Government department. I will charge less per day for a long project that offers months of financial security, or for a project where the application is not onerous. And I will always negotiate on rates – at least, up to a point.

When it comes to working out how long the project will take, I break it down into individual elements. Let’s say a national client tells me they want a three-month project to include a focused literature review, 20 interviews with key people, presentation of draft findings at a meeting in London, and a written report with an executive summary (and let’s say I agree this is a suitable approach to the work – which is not always the case). We will also need a project initiation meeting, and I’d need to build in time for correspondence and administration: my rule of thumb here is half a day per month.

The first thing I need to do is a quick check of the literature, as a ‘focused literature review’ takes different lengths of time depending on whether the key search terms yield three items or 300,000. If it’s the former, I start thinking more laterally about potential search terms. If there are lots of hits, I start thinking about how to narrow down the search: I usually start by restricting the date range on Google Scholar and then take it from there. I am always mindful that a client’s budget is limited, and that they are unlikely to want to fund six months of my time to review the literature in detail. In fact, I’m lucky if I get six days. So I need to come up with a search strategy that will work for quite a limited review – and it does no harm to point out to the client that I can only read, on average, 10 documents a day. (Of course the exact number depends on the length of each document, but I work on the basis of a 15-page average, i.e. 150 pages/day or 20 pages per hour (7.5 hours per working day) or one page every three minutes.)

Then I need to think about the interviews. If they’re with professionals, I can probably do them by phone or Skype; if with service users, they would need to be face-to-face. And if those service users are scattered around the country, there are huge implications for travel time and cost. Plus I need to factor in time for setting up the interviews, and rearranging the inevitable ones where I call or turn up and the person I’m due to interview isn’t there. I also need to have a first go at drafting the interview questions, to get a sense of how long the interviews themselves might be. That is impossible to predict entirely, as some people are much more talkative than others, but I have another rule of thumb: for a shorter set of questions (say, nine or fewer) I’ll schedule an interview every 45 minutes, for a longer set I’ll allow an hour per interview. (Unless I’m interviewing school teachers, who are ninja level question answerers, in which case I’ll allow 30 minutes however many questions I have.) Occasionally people are willing to talk for longer than 45-60 minutes but if I’ve got someone really chatty, I’ll start drawing their attention to that within the first 15-20 minutes of the interview to help us both to manage the time.

It’s also important to think about recording and, if necessary, transcription time – which is usually calculated at four hours for each hour of talk. Indie researchers often outsource transcription, to make it cheaper for clients, though you need to be sure the service you use will yield good quality transcripts.

Then I have to work out how long it will take me to code and analyse data (I reckon to code 10 interview transcripts per day, but then I’ve been doing it for a long time), draft reports, and prepare for meetings. So, assuming the interviews can be done by telephone, and the project will take three months, my time allocation for this fictional project might look something like:

  • Project initiation meeting in London (including preparation and travel) – one day
  • Focused literature review – six days
  • 20 telephone interviews (including set-up time etc) – four days
  • Data coding – two days
  • Data analysis – one day
  • Drafting report – two days
  • Preparing for presentation meeting – 0.5 day
  • Presentation meeting in London – one day
  • Finishing report and executive summary – one day
  • Correspondence and administration (0.5 day/month) – 1.5 days

That gives a total of 20 days. I multiply that by the day rate I’ve decided to offer this client, which produces a rate I can quote for the job.

Funding for Indie Researchers

coins on handOne of the great frustrations of being an indie researcher is inability to access funding. Maybe this is easier in other parts of the world but there are few options here in the UK. The UK’s Research Councils, which hold most of the country’s research funding, do not regard indie researchers as eligible to apply for that funding. For example, as a social science researcher, I would look to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). They have a budget of almost £200m to fund research, but indie researchers are not even eligible to apply for any of this public money. (ESRC also says it ‘has no budget’ with which to pay indie researchers for work they ask us to do directly, e.g. independent assessment of its end-of-project reports – but that’s another story.) Indie researchers can form part of a team to apply for research funding from ESRC, but that team must be led by someone employed in a university or research institute.

I would like to see this change. I believe independent social scientists have a lot to offer to research, because we have perspectives that are not directly affected by institutional pressures, constraints, and power games. Therefore, I think excluding us from national funding is a waste of a valuable national resource. I’m not asking for funding to be ring-fenced for indie researchers, or for any special treatment. I’d just like to be allowed to apply for funding, as I could if I was a researcher from a university or a research institute.

If the ESRC isn’t sure about how to distribute funding effectively to single operatives, they could always ask the Arts Council who have a great deal of experience in doing just that. However, much though I’d like to change ESRC policy, I realise I’m unlikely to be able to achieve that with this blog post – or with anything else, for that matter. So I’m glad to say there are a few other funders who are offering small pots of money which are accessible to indie researchers. Here are the ones I’ve found out about.

The British Academy offers Small Research Grants of between £500 and £10,000, which may be spread over two years. These grants are for primary funding in the humanities and social sciences. The lead scholar must be based in the UK, but beyond that, people from other countries may be involved in the project. They look for a clearly defined piece of work with an identifiable outcome.

The Wellcome Trust offers Small Grants of up to £5,000 for small-scale projects in the humanities and social sciences. You can apply for up to £10,000 if you intend to hold an international meeting or attract international speakers. Applicants must be based in, or travelling to, the UK or Ireland or a ‘low-to-middle-income country’ (long list from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe).

The Wellcome Trust also offers Seed Awards of £25,000 to £50,000, usually over a 6-12 month period. These are intended to help researchers develop a novel idea that will enrich our understanding of human or animal health. They encourage the development of new approaches and collaborations. They are also piloting Themed Seed Awards of £75,000 to £100,000.

The Independent Social Research Foundation offers independent scholar fellowships for European researchers (scroll down). They are intended to buy out someone’s time for up to a year, with a maximum award of £25,000, to enable them to work on a research project or an article or book.

That’s all I’ve been able to find so far. On the one hand, these are paltry amounts of money compared to the £193million of ESRC funding that indie researchers can’t access directly. But on the other hand, I could do a great deal with a small five-figure sum. This is partly where I think the larger funders are missing a trick: indie researchers don’t have big overheads so we’re very cost-effective.

Do you know of other funding for which indie researchers can apply? I haven’t looked beyond funding available to UK-based researchers. Shall we try to develop an open access spreadsheet of global opportunities? If you like this idea, and you know of suitable funding, please leave details in the comments.

A Day In My Life

BSA logoThis post comes to you in rather a hurry as I have to leave for the airport in less than an hour. So I don’t have time to write much, but luckily for me, I already wrote a blog post this week for the nice people at the British Sociological Association postgraduate forum. I chat to them on Twitter, they’re all kinds of helpful and supportive, and they have a rather excellent blog. I was delighted to be the first in their new ‘day in the life’ series. So if you want to know about a representative kind of day from my working life (there’s no such thing as a typical one), click here. Meanwhile, today in my working life will mostly be spent on a plane, as I’m off to Calgary in Canada. I’ll be working there, too – tell you about it next week!

Being My Own Patron

love writingYou’ve probably worked out by now that I love to write. I still remember the joy of winning a class story competition when I was 7 or 8 years old. I filled most of an exercise book with the story of four children who had adventures in a flying car. It was an incredibly derivative Chitty Chitty Bang Bang/Swallows and Amazons mash-up, but I didn’t know, then, that you’re not supposed to nick other people’s ideas. I did know that writing, for me, was enormously satisfying.

It was a habit I never lost. As a young adult I found that I couldn’t not write: I wrote on buses, in bed, on holiday and at work, and when I wasn’t writing I was often thinking about writing. There’s a game I still play with myself when I have a bit of spare brain: which words would I use to describe the way sunlight shimmers on that wheat field, the taste of this flavoursome curry, how I feel when my partner is unexpectedly late home and I don’t know why. I’m looking for precision. I don’t want to conjure up any old wheat field, curry, or emotion, I want to describe the quality of light on that wheat field, the joy of this spice mix making my taste buds sing, the bittersweet combination of love and anxiety I’m experiencing right now.

I love to rewrite, too. In the previous paragraph, I originally wrote of the spice mix ‘exploding on my tongue’. That was a bit too cliched even for a disposable blog post. Then I tried ‘colonising my taste buds’, which pleased me because of the reverse colonisation implication for this UK resident, but then I began to doubt that phrase in case, even though I had associated it with joy, it could be read in the opposite way by someone with racist tendencies. So I went for ‘sing’ which has pleasing links with joy and mouth. As this is a blog post, which I am writing when I should be doing client work, I plumped for the third idea. If I was writing a book, I might have run through many more possibilities before making my choice.

If I didn’t love to write, I wouldn’t write. I certainly don’t do it for the money. When people find out that I’m a writer, they sometimes assume I’m rich, JK Rowling-style. Nope. It’s particularly dumb being an academic writer, whose average annual earnings are the lowest of all the categories at an average of £3,826 per year in the UK. I’m not sure of my own exact average, but in the 12 years since my first book was published, I know it is somewhere around £350 per year. I don’t earn anything for book chapters or, usually, academic journal articles, though I did get paid £1,500 for writing one in 2014. If I count my average earnings from writing over the three years since my first research methods book came out in 2012, that one single payment pushes it up to somewhere around £850 per year.

However, the calculation of direct earnings is not the whole story. In academic circles, my writing confers credibility and, quite literally, authority. I know I have obtained paid work, from academic and non-academic institutions (including, ironically given recent events, HM Government), as a direct result of my writing. But writing takes a lot of time and, when you’re self-employed, time is money. One of the really, really annoying things about being an indie researcher is that you can’t get funding from anywhere. Research councils will only fund institutions, I’m not arty enough for the Arts Council, not literary enough for a Royal Literary Fellowship, and even the Independent Social Research Foundation doesn’t do what I thought it did. I got all excited when I saw the name, but it seems to be the Foundation which is independent, not the researchers it funds who are all employed by academic institutions.

I have wondered whether to try using the web for its potential rather than its usefulness and go for some kind of crowdfunding. I’ve thought about Kickstarter, or Unbound, or Patreon. They all have slightly different models. With Kickstarter, you propose a project, set a funding limit, and offer ‘rewards’ which can be as nominal as funders getting their name in the acknowledgements/credits or as tangible as you like: a copy of the book, dinner with the author, feedback on a draft of your own work – whatever you want to offer for varying levels of contribution. Unbound is a bit like Kickstarter but specifically for books. And Patreon is a way in which fans of artists can pay a set amount per week, per month, or per output, again in return for rewards chosen by the artist to suit the size of the contribution.

cliffhangerI think these are interesting, useful platforms for creative people. I don’t think they’ll work for me. For a start, I don’t have millions of fans. Some projects get funded even though their generators don’t have millions of fans, because they have an idea that captures enough people’s imaginations. I don’t think my current project, a multi-disciplinary research ethics book, is going to capture many people’s imaginations. My ideas aren’t earth-shaking, though they may cause a small bounce in a few odd corners of academia. But they matter to me. And that’s why I am my own patron.

I am lucky that I can use my income to fund my writing habit – and that writing is the habit I want to fund; far more destructive habits are available. I am also lucky that I’m not materialistic. But I’m also not completely stupid when it comes to running a business. So I’ve decided that, where my writing is concerned, it’s time to diversify. I alluded to my Top Secret Project back in April, and now it’s almost ready to… ooh, is that the time? I’ll have to tell you the rest next week!

Why I Am Saying No To The UK Government

just say noA few months ago I wrote a post called ‘Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities’ in which I demonstrated that universities are wealthy organisations and explained that, therefore, I was not prepared to work them for free.

This week I got an email from a UK Government department, from a civil servant who had been at the creative research methods conference last May where my most recent book was launched. The email, and my thought processes as I read it, went like this:

Email: That conference was great

Me: It was, wasn’t it?

Email: As a result, I bought your book

Me: I think I love you

Email: I’m a researcher in the UK government

Me: And?

Email: We have a cross-departmental group looking at creative research methods

Me: That’s interesting, and new information for me

Email: I’m very enthusiastic about this, and my colleagues would like to meet you

Me: Yay! This sounds exciting!

Email: And perhaps you could speak at one of our seminars

Me: Woo-hoo! That would be great!

Email: Though we don’t really have a budget

Me: Uh-oh, I might be falling out of love…

Email: But could you come anyway?

Me: I very much want to, but… I don’t think so.

Email: We can reimburse travel expenses

Me: Oh Here We Go Again *grinds teeth with rage*

The meeting is, of course, in London. With travel time, it takes me a whole day to go to a meeting in London. So the UK Government are asking me to write off a whole working day in exchange for… well, nothing. No pay. Nada. Zilch. And their offer of reimbursing my travel expenses is somehow supposed to make that OK.

This is the Government that allegedly supports small businesses. The coalition trumpeted their support for small businesses in the UK, and for micro-businesses like mine, though the relevant web pages now have big banners on saying that they were published under the coalition government. But I wouldn’t expect the Tories to backtrack on coalition commitments to small businesses. Indeed, the 2015 Conservative manifesto included a pledge to increase the percentage of Government funds spent with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from one-quarter of goods and services to one-third. Yet now, it seems, they’re asking at least some micro-businesses to provide services to the Government for nothing. How does that constitute support? And how will that help the Government achieve their stated aim of spending more with SMEs?

I’ve discovered that it’s harder to say no to the Government than to universities. This is partly because there are lots of universities and only one Government. It’s also because, well, it feels a bit scary. I know we live in a kind of a democracy with fairly free speech most of the time. Particularly as I’m a native Brit, I don’t think anyone is likely to knock on my door in the night and drag me off to a bunker somewhere for a serious telling-off. But it is… y’know… the Government. The people with the power. There’s a bit of me that thinks I should have rolled over, said yes, at least it would have looked good on my CV. And that, if I’m not going to say yes, I should at least keep quiet, not speak out.

But really, that raises a question I’ve asked my clients more than once when they’ve wanted to suppress some research findings they thought might be politically unpopular. Should we work for our Government? Or should our Government work for us?

I really would like to contribute to their creative research methods group, and I think it’s fair to say that, right now, I may be the person in the country who is best placed to provide support to that group. But I think, I believe, that our Government should work for us, and not the other way around. So, with a heavy heart, I am saying no to the UK Government.

***Update: a few minutes after publishing the above post, I got another email saying oops, sorry, we can’t even pay travel expenses. ***

Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities

piggy bank and coinsIn the last few weeks I have been asked to deliver seminars at the universities of York and Leicester. I had the time and would have enjoyed the experiences. Also, in both cases, the people inviting me were my friends. So why did I say ‘no’?

I was asked to work for nothing.

Both universities offered to pay my travel expenses. This has been standard practice for many years, designed to ensure that academics would not be out of pocket when visiting another institution. Visiting academics don’t need to be paid by their host institution because they are already drawing a good salary from their own institution.

Independent researchers are not drawing a salary and often don’t earn a great deal. I have been open about my income. As I thought about the invitations from York and Leicester, it occurred to me that universities were probably open about their income, too. So I did some research and found that, although often buried deep within layers of web pages, they do indeed publish their financial statements.

In 2013/14, the income of the University of York was £305.4m and its expenditure was £297.2m. It has total net assets of £243.8m, and a retained surplus of £10.5m.

In the same financial year, the income of the University of Leicester was £286.7m and its expenditure was £279.2m. It has total net assets of £172.6m, and a retained surplus of £7.6m.

Clearly universities must exercise sound financial stewardship. They have staff to pay and to provide pensions for, and I believe that university staff work hard and should be paid appropriately. There are buildings to be maintained and refurbished, equipment costs, perhaps debts to service, and so on. But these are wealthy institutions with an annual surplus of millions of pounds. Yet, while they evidently want my expertise, they won’t pay me a couple of hundred.

I found it embarrassing to refuse my friends’ requests. In both cases they said they had no budget to pay visiting scholars. Clearly universities hold on tight to their cash. But in doing so, they minimise the types of expertise available to their students. Is that a sensible educational strategy?

In recent weeks, I have been cheerfully paid a sensible fee for work at Staffordshire University, which is significantly less wealthy than York or Leicester (income: £118.4m, expenditure: £116m, net assets £44.2m, surplus £3.6m). I have also been paid by Swansea University (income £205.8m, expenditure £182.3m, net assets £156.5m, surplus £7.2m). And I am in discussions with Birmingham City University, who said my fee was what they were expecting (income: £173.8m, expenditure £153.6m, net assets £219.9m, surplus £23.2m).

Although this is not any kind of a representative sample, I used my researcher’s eye to try to discern a pattern. York is a Russell Group university; Leicester and Swansea were founded around the same time in the early 1920s; Staffordshire and Birmingham City are post-92. So there is no apparent consistency here.

I wonder what prospective students might think. Would you like to go to a university that will encourage you to learn from a wide variety of expert people? Or would you prefer one that will restrict you to learning from its own faculty and some volunteers?