Thursday, June 01, 2006

Weighing the pig

'You don't fatten a pig by weighing it', one of my colleagues remarked while we were meeting to discuss how to improve research performance by monitoring indices, accumulating statistics and holding more meetings in the future to do the same.

While it has a germ of truth, this cliche is literally wrong since you can fatten a pig by weighing it. Just design an incentive contract that rewards the agent who cares for the pig, and weigh the pig to verify that the agent has done his or her job. But the cliche points to the transaction costs of planning and carrying that could be diverted into time spent doing research.

Most working in universities accept managerial transactions costs but question whether they have become excessive. Most that I encounter - whether they are research stars or teachers or administrators - work hard. Of course the image in the community is the opposite - but it is a largely false image.

Schemes to promote research that involve rewards and penalties in a situation where there isn't any slack can create deadweight losses in the whole system. They waste time that could be devoted to productive activities. They waste resources in an overstretched system.

This is a winge but I have spent a lot of recent past at meetings - I could have done better things. Preparing my Nobel Prize Acceptance email (not a lot of work - just 'yes') or blogging. Or yes, doing some serious research rather than thinking of ways to get others to do it.


Jan said...

I agree Harry,
the current system provide sufficient incentives for academics to do (quality) research. From talking to my students there seems to be a great need to get academics to do a better job at their teaching (and often little improvements there are not time-consuming can go a long way). How about making evaluations available online to start with (as is the case in UniMelb)?

hc said...

I think the issues of teaching and research are linked. As an academic you must optimise time spent over both. Those with consistently perfect teaching evaluations probably are not putting enough time into research.

I have no comment on specific academic practices for evaluating teaching (or research) at my own or other universities. At least not on a public blogsite.

Anonymous said...

In the U.S. at the good schools it appears (departmental) peer review combined with a deep labor market seems to provide incentives for high quality research. My impression (only an impression) is that there is a fair amount of turnover at the junior ranks in these schools with those not getting tenure (and those not going to) moving to lesser schools. Except for perhaps two schools (I know of) in Australia, there is much less of this (probably too little). Then the use of targets etc to overcome an imperfect market.

Also, we have to be careful (asa principal-agent theory suggests) with targets not to distort activities excessively towards those unambiguously measurable (like raising research funds from private/public sector) away from those which are more subjective and less measurable (like publishing in good journals). I am not sure this may not have been a problem in Australia.