In Projects we Trust

When I was a child in communist Romania, the butt of many jokes was the government’s five-year plans. The cincinal (from cinci, meaning five in Romanian) was always accomplished in four years and a half, and the initial production goals were always surpassed. This of course had no relation whatsoever with reality. The 1980s that I was born in were dark, cold, and hungry. The five-year plans flourished on paper, while the country sank into despair. If this were happening today, there would be one major difference: the cincinal would be called a project.

I have become aware of project-think (the mental illness that forces everything into a neat package with stakeholders, expiration dates, inputs and outputs, and of course deliverables) while increasingly accommodating myself to my profession. As a post-doc, I have the dubious benefit of being both an insider, taken seriously enough to participate in the important meetings and apply to the big funds, and in danger of being forced out of academia as long as I don’t secure the next, you guessed it, project. I don’t mean to say that academia is the only project-dominated enterprise. If only that were the case, money might be better spent overall! I pick this example simply because I know it well, and is therefore available to me. But make no mistake: in projects we all trust.

I am currently involved in several projects. If I have to ask a colleague what they are doing, the most recognizable and relatable way is to ask them about their projects (the plural imparts prestige; to be involved in one project is lazy). The communities in which I do field-work are full of projects, the lucky recipients of magnificent outputs. The mayor’s office has become a project-application institution, conservation organizations either apply for projects themselves or dispense money for other people’s projects, and the big funding organizations (chief among which, in my neck of the woods, the European Commission) proudly publish lists of accomplished projects, while devising the next cincinal. On paper, production is great.

On the surface of it, there is nothing wrong with doing a project. It can be seen as a convenient way of justifying, in detail, why one should be receiving public funds. A project proposal, whether in development work or in nature conservation, tells the people with the money what you will do, why, for how long, with whom, and to what end. This is all quite sensible, if it wasn’t for:

The evaluators:

Any project proposal must be evaluated. This means that someone must read about what you will do and decide whether to give you money to do it. The problem is that, despite the criteria spelled out by funding organizations (for example, excellence), this is a fundamentally contingent exercise. In other words, there is no way for several people to judge a project proposal the same way, which suggests both the impossibility of having watertight criteria, and that there might be something wrong with the form. Most people can agree on what is junk, but nobody can agree on what is excellent.

The money:

To my surprise, I discovered that the university system (at least the ones I interact with) has plenty of money. The problem is accessing it. I say to my surprise because the general wisdom considers the university to be, like all public institutions, strapped for cash. But instead of there being a lack of money, there is a lack of clear and efficient distribution channels. Part of the reason for this is the dominance of projects, and the fact that this dominance favors insiders over outsiders. The insiders are the ones that know what to write in those project proposals such that other insiders, the evaluators, can judge them favorably. This creates a culture of clientelism that has far-reaching ramifications for the institutional environment in universities as well as the quality of their research. The budgets for projects are furthermore set independently of their content. I have been advised not to apply for less than the maximum amount available, because it brings no benefits. This means that many projects would do the exact same fundamental work with a smaller budget, which begs the question of what happens with the rest. The answer is easy: it is wasted on sometimes pleasant but mostly useless activities.

The deadline:

A project has a beginning and an end. My last project lasted for three years. During the last year of that project I had to apply for future projects, an absurd waste of time in the name of continuing to have a job. By the time I was done writing (over ten different times) about what I will do if I were awarded the next research fund, I felt like I had already accomplished a lot, except that I hadn’t accomplished a thing. I have written hundreds of pages of projects, but cannot find the time to write my next book, that is to say hundreds of pages that people might read. The temporality of the project forces one to think in terms of artificial deadlines. The only true criterion for the deadlines of many projects is the duration of the research fund. That is to say, the same fundamental idea can be shrunk into slices of one year or pies of five, depending on the generosity of the funder. There is almost no relation between the nature of the idea and the professed time it takes to develop it.

The thinking:

In the next three years, I am supposed to understand, implement, and publish an impressive (ambition is an important evaluation criterion!) amount of stuff. The ideas that motivate me are the only real thing at the center of a performance that academics must engage in. I still retain a passion for ideas and a fidelity to them, and am willing to adapt my performance such that I can secure the continuation that true research needs. But the fact of the matter is that passion and fidelity are not evaluation criteria, and one could easily build a research career out of pure bullshit. Projects breed a way of thinking that cuts the world up into discrete packages to be ticked off a to-do list. And the ways in which academics necessarily internalize evaluation criteria breeds a language reminiscent of the one prevalent during my childhood (we called it wooden language, to reflect its subtlety and suppleness). This is deadly for clear thinking (I have written in more detail about this strange language here). The prevalence of the word project itself in conversations already indicates a poverty of thinking, the substitution of genuine thoughts for keywords.

The waste:

Inasmuch as the only way to get money is by having a project, many projects will be invented simply because they bring money. This is true not just of academia. I have seen local administrations spend money uselessly (while worthy but long-term causes are ignored) just because they have a project. Much energy goes into securing projects in order to advance the careers of insiders (again, not just in academia) and to feel important before the deadline kicks in. The patient work of a life-time is a hopelessly outmoded idea. The result is a busyness with no direction, a colossal waste of human energy and resources.

I am sure that this will feel familiar to many. I don’t know what to do about project-think except call it by its proper name. I don’t think that more stringent criteria are the answer; instead, I would step away from elevating what is essentially a plan to the level of thinking itself. As long as early career academics will be fed insecurity in the context of an opaque and unequal distribution of funds, we will all continue to apply for projects. The least we can do is acknowledge that winning an absurd game does not make it right, and push for change when we are in positions of power. When any of us still-junior researchers will be in the position to distribute the millions granted us, we’d do well to invest in people rather than workshops, in long-term rather than short-term gains, in ideas rather than projects. This is if we don’t, in the meantime, start believing that the five-year plan will be accomplished in four years and a half.

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