Thursday, March 29, 2007

Space Wars

My department/division/university has been reevaluating how lab and other work space is allocated to faculty. Space is limited, but for as long as I've been here, some faculty members with no research programs (no students, no postdocs, no grants, no activity) have retained their lab space. There is one particular lab in my building that is used only to store a faculty member's bicycle, and another that has not been entered at all in years. This has long annoyed me and others, as several of my colleagues and I are pressed for space and could use those labs for scientific purposes.

Taking away someone's lab space is a tricky thing, politically, or so I've been told. I would think that having an unused lab would be stressful for the lab 'owner', but my unproductive colleagues don't seem to be losing any sleep over it. I don't see how anyone can justify their clinging to these spaces, but no administrators have wanted to 'go there'.

It's possible that things might be changing now. We are increasingly being asked to justify our use of space, including generating sufficient indirect costs from grants to justify our the lab space we each currently have. I think this might be a humane way to reclaim some of this space. It makes the lab reassignment much less a personal issue, and more one of stark economics. I wouldn't advocate that someone lose their lab if they have a gap in funding, but only if the lack of funding was the result of a long term lack of any effort even to seek funding.

Even so, it's difficult to escape the personal aspects of it. My department chair asked me today what I would do with one of these unused lab spaces if he reassigned it to me, and I had lots of ideas. This lab would have to be reassigned against the will of the current faculty member whose lab it is. I asked the chair how he would go about this reassignment, and he wasn't sure. If he does move forward with this, I strongly recommended that he phrase it in terms of indirect costs and long term grant/proposal activity, so that the situation wasn't set up as Me vs. SeniorGuy.

8 comments:

ThatAnnoyingWoman said...

Well, one of the rules of space warfare is to collect information. Being asked how one might hypothetically use this space is a great offer from the Chair, even if there is some queasiness on exactly how to go about reassigning it.

I have fought a number of turf wars over the years. Economic reasons or other "objective" reasons are valuable weapons. Always be polite and smile a lot while you are yanking the rug out from underneath them....

Once you have the lab, fill it to the brim with real equipment. Get students or real researchers in there fast - there should be a constant coming and going, as the person losing the lab will be mad and keeping track. Bikes are a no-no.

I find students grateful fillers - they only need a few months for their thesis, so they can be nicely evicted when you get money for some other projects.

Then be real, real nice to the the lab-loser, supporting him or her publically on some other issue that is not really important to you.

Keep the activity level up - it is amazing how quick they are to want to take away your space when you are a woman.....

Good luck!

Am I a woman scientist? said...

My postdoc advisor was hired as department head (from a different school), precisely to get rid of deadwood and deal with an acute lab space shortage, made worse by the demolition of one of the science buildings. Sometimes I wondered how he made it through department meetings alive.

Anonymous said...

Why does it always have to be a war? Even with a literal limit on space, which is a given here, does no one actually put in the work to talk to the people who clearly have no intention of putting that space to use in the future and ask them if it could be used for the benefit of everyone? Everyone in the department does benefit, if not directly, by more overall productivity. Perhaps the person with unused space might be interested in taking on an advisory role or some such other collaboration in exchange for the space. But everywhere I go, it really does seem to end up being 'justify your existence' or 'give me this' or some such, very antagonistic, not useful for collaboration at all, and I can't see that being very useful. I wonder if the same sort of concerted effort were made in that area as it were in the constant evaluation, maybe better results and better relationships would be both achieved and maintained--or maybe it's just a pipe dream for small departments.

Dr. Lisa said...

The politics of my graduate school department was such that I ended up sharing a HUGE window office with two other grad students because of the "if I can't have it, neither can you!" attitude of some of the faculty.

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, what I proposed to the Chair was a plan in which 3-4 faculty share the lab space for activities that we now duplicate in separate facilities but that could easily be concentrated in one space, saving everyone $$ and time, and increasing the amount of interaction among students, postdocs, and faculty in these groups. I think it would be a positive interaction rather than a competition for space/time in this particular case.

Doug Natelson said...

Anonymous - the problem is that people tend not to be objective or rational about questions that can hit close to home. Even delicately phrased, asking "Can we use your space for the common good of the research-active faculty?" can come across like "Are you ready to retire yet, Prof. Deadwood?" You run into things like this with (the finite supply of) faculty lines and retirements, too.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm shocked that the chair/dean/president of the U doesn't step in and lay down the law. Most places I have been, nobody worries about offending the unproductive PI. There are expectations, these are stated clearly, and that is all there is to it. Space is tied directly to funding and personnel. If you can't afford to pay the people to fill the space, you lose the space. Period.

Of course, my view is not that you, already senior prof with space, should have more space, since you already have some. Instead, this is space a new young prof like me could have, if only people would realize how much work I could do if somebody would hire me and get rid of all the Professor Deadwoods who think they should get paid to sit on their laurels.

Freudian Slip said...

I really enjoy hearing about this "behind the scenes" kind of stuff. Keep it coming!
Matt