Negative incentives in academic research

In the first half of the XXth century, there were relatively few scientists, and these scientists were generally not lavishly funded. Yet it has been convincingly argued that these scientists were massively more productive. We face a major replication crisis where important results in fields such as psychology and medicine cannot be reproduced independently. Academic researchers routinely fail to even fill out the results from clinical trials. We have entered a ‘dark age’ where we are mostly stagnant. It is not that there is no progress per se, but progress is slow, uncommon and expensive.

Why might that be? I believe that it has to do with important ‘negative incentives’ that we have introduced. In effect, we have made scientists less productive. We probably did so through several means, but two effects are probably important: the widespread introduction of research competitions and the addition of extrinsic motivations.

  1.  Prior to 1960, there was hardly any formal research funding competitions. Today, by some estimates, it takes about 40 working days to prepare a single new grant application with about 30 working days for a resubmission, and the success rates is often low which means that for a single successful research grant, hundreds of days might have been spent, purely on the acquisition of funding. This effect is known in economics as rent dissipation. Suppose that I offer to give you $100 to support your research if you enter a competition. How much time are you willing to spend? Maybe you are willing to spend the equivalent of $50, if the success rate is 50%. The net result is that two researchers may each waste $50 in time so that one of them acquire $100 of support. There may be no net gain! Furthermore, if grant applications are valued enough (e.g., needed to get promotion), scientists may be willing to spend even more time than is rational to do so, and the introduction of a new grant competition may in fact reduce the overall research output. You should not underestimate the effect that constant administrative and grant writing might have on a researcher: many graduate students will tell you of their disappointment when encountering high status scientists who cannot seem to do actual research anymore. It can cause a vicious form of accelerated aging. If Albert Einstein had been stuck writing grant applications and reporting on the results from his team, history might have taken a different turn.
  2. We have massively increased the number and importance of ‘extrinsic motivations’ in science. Broadly speaking, we can distinguish between two types of motivations… intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Winning prizes or securing prestigious positions are extrinsic motivations. Solving an annoying problem or pursuing a personal quest are intrinsic motivations. We repeatedly find that intrinsic motivations are positively correlated with long-term productivity whereas extrinsic motivations are negatively correlated with long-term productivity (e.g., Horodnic and Zaiţh 2015). In fact, extrinsic motivations even cancel out intrinsic motivations (Wrzesniewski et al., 2014). Extrinsically motivated individuals will focus on superficial gains, as opposed to genuine advances. Of course, the addition of extrinsic motivations may also create a selection effect: the field tends to recruit people who seek prestige for its own sake, as opposed to having a genuine interest in scientific pursuits. Thus creating prestigious prizes, prestigious positions, and prestigious conferences, may end up being detrimental to scientific productivity.

Many people object that the easiest explanation for our stagnation has to do with the fact that most of the easy findings have been covered. However, at all times in history, there were people making this point. In 1894, Michelson said:

While it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice.

Silverstein in the “The End is Near!”: The Phenomenon of the Declaration of Closure in a Discipline, documents carefully how, historically, many people predicted (wrongly) that their discipline was at an end.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

10 thoughts on “Negative incentives in academic research”

  1. I only partially agree with you about the funding matter. While I agree, that it is a huge issue in modern science (yet I don’t think it is very unique, more a special case of the system with limited resources and high number of people competing for them), it is a huge oversimplification telling that for each grant application the same amount of time is spent. It is more like a once a huge work, which later can be reused over and over again. At the end it is better situation, that is described in the article. For me bigger problem is the risk assessment. You have a choice of submitting high risk high reword project, which is not going to be funded because of reviewers do not believe that it is doable. If you get funding, there still high probability you fail. Logical in this situation is to stick to safe projects, but safe in this case equals boring.

    1. The concept of rent dissipation is general. Everything else being equal, people who spend more time on their grant applications are more often successful. Thus there is a strong incentive to spend more and more time on grant applications, and to apply on more and more grants. All this time and effort is at the expense of actual research.

  2. > We have entered a ‘dark age’ where we are mostly stagnant. It is not that there is no progress per se, but progress is slow, uncommon and expensive. Why might that be?

    It might also be the case that humankind has already plucked most of the lower hanging fruits in research, i.e., big questions with huge impact that are nevertheless solvable by the insights of one person or a small group. To reach the higher hanging fruits, everyone is getting more and more specialized and hence the problems we are thinking about are also more and more specialized. In contrast, earlier in this century, at least in STEM, the field was still relatively small, and people like J von Neumann had the possibility of being true experts in multiple disciplines.

    1. The problem with this argument is that it could have been made at any point in history. Many people at the end of the start of the XXth century thought that most things had been resolved. Surely they could not imagine quantum mechanics, airplanes, and so forth.

      1. The late 1800s was a period of radical invention and social transformation. I doubt most people thought most things had been resolved.

        Despite the wide-spread claim that United States Commissioner of Patents Charles Holland Duell said “everything that can be invented has been invented”, in 1902 he actually wrote:

        In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.

        1. > The late 1800s was a period of radical invention and social transformation. I doubt most people thought most things had been resolved.

          I also doubt that. I also doubt that today most people think that most things have been resolved.

          What I am saying that, at all points in history, people could say that all the important or easy things have been discovered. Repeatedly, these people have been wrong. It does not prove that they are wrong today, but it suggests that we must first thoroughly investigate the other side of the coin.

          It comes down to this… Either we are bad at our job, or else the job is too hard and cannot be done. It is easier to opt for the second explanation but I think we have much evidence for the first explanation to hold. We have radically transformed how science and innovation run. These radical transformations are associated with much stagnation.

        2. And as a matter of consistency, the statement…

          > Many people at the end of the start of the XXth century thought that most things had been resolved.

          is not contradicted by…

          > I doubt most people thought most things had been resolved.

          Most likely, both statement held true!

  3. Maybe there are too many researchers these days – if there were less, there would be less competition for grants, and thus less need to spend time on grants. STEM has become too prestigious – maybe because science actually “works” (as shown by all the benefits we have derived through technology). As for “winning prizes”, it’s clearly a distraction. I’m looking forward to Academia 2.0, but I’m afraid it’s not going to happen any time soon.

  4. Wow, academics spend 40 working days for a single grant application? That sounds insane. What do people spend all that time on?

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