Warning bell for cluster hiring of researchers as survey reveals lacklustre results

The 'set and forget' approach dooms group hires.

24 April 2020

Chris Woolston

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Cluster hiring, a popular approach to faculty recruitment at universities in the United States to spur collaboration, often falls short of its goals, a survey of nearly 200 hired faculty at 20 universities reveals.

The results, reported in the Journal of Higher Education, sound a warning bell for such initiatives, including a large hiring scheme that will soon be rolled out by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The cluster model, which started gaining widespread use in the late 1990s, involves hiring teams of researchers, typically three to eight at a time, who can band together to tackle complex multidisciplinary research targets such as climate, poverty, or cancer.

“There was a notion that you could make real headway on big problems if you had people on campus who were talking to each other on a regular basis,” says study co-author Steven Brint, a higher education researcher at the University of California, Riverside in Riverside, California.

But the survey found few signs of enhanced collaboration.

“A lot of [researchers hired in clusters] are really just pursuing their own research,” Brint says. “When you look at their websites, they barely even mention that they are part of a cluster.”

Almost a quarter (23%) of respondents said they had never collaborated with another member of their cluster group, and 60% said that their cluster had no clear agenda.

Career improvements for most

In free-text comments gathered as part of the survey, one researcher said that a cluster convened to study advanced materials hadn’t, in fact, materialized: “We haven’t done any … joint research activities.”

This respondent noted that cluster members had little interest in joint projects because they still had to follow the path for tenure and promotion set by their particular departments. “They all try to fit themselves into their own departments to survive.”

On the positive side, 56% of respondents said that their career had improved after joining the cluster. Brint says soon-to-be published data suggest that researchers hired into clusters generally had better success in getting grants and more collaborations per paper in the five years following their hire than in the previous five years.

Cluster hiring remains a common practice. In January, an advisory group at the NIH approved a new $US241 million initiative called the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST), which will help fund hiring clusters of 10 or more researchers at about a dozen universities and medical schools over 9 years, starting in 2021.

The initiative is designed to avoid the pitfalls that have beset other attempts at cluster hiring, says Hannah Valantine, the NIH’s chief officer for workforce diversity. “Many of those clusters were not brought together in a meaningful way,” she says.

The cohorts hired through the NIH program will have regular meetings, formal mentorship, and the resources they need to succeed, she says.

A template for success

Unlike many other cluster-hiring schemes, the NIH model isn’t primarily intended to promote collaboration on complex research topics. Instead, Valantine says, the new hires will have to show a history of championing underrepresented groups in science.

Members of the cluster will be expected to work together to help “change the culture of science to make it more inclusive”, she says.

Valantine expects that some research collaborations will flow naturally from the initiative, adding that a pilot program that started two years ago has already spawned several successful cooperative projects.

There’s a clear template for successful cluster hiring, says Brint. He and his colleagues highlight one university, which “stood out for its thoughtful approach” to the process, by spelling out expected time commitments and bringing in deans and department heads early on in the hiring process.

“Such planning is far removed from most of what we observe in our survey responses,” the authors write.

With permission, Brint identified this institution as Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in State College, Pennsylvania. For example, the university used cluster hiring to help build the 2-Dimensional Crystal Consortium, an initiative for creating two-dimensional materials that now involves approximately 20 researchers spanning 7 departments.

Lora Weiss, senior vice president for research at Penn State, says that faculty hired in clusters (or “co-hires,” the university’s preferred term) have a clear mission, well-defined paths for tenure, and financial support from deans and directors of interdisciplinary research units.

“There’s a shared vision, but there’s also shared funding,” she says. “We’re invested in this together.”

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