Monday, April 22, 2013
Matt Welsh, who does research for Google, but who had once been an academician,
writes about the "other side" of "'academic freedom'" (his scare
quotes). He titles his post "Volatile and Decentralized," but he could have
just as easily given it the title above since it touches on how government
funding actually makes it more difficult to conduct ground-breaking
Who decides which problems are sexy (and therefore publishable)? I'll tell you: it's the 30-some-odd people who serve on the program committees of the top conferences in your area year after year. It is very rare for a faculty member to buck the trend of which topics are "hot" in their area, since they would run a significant risk of not being able to publish in the top venues. This can be absolutely disastrous for junior faculty who need a strong publication record to get tenure. I know of several faculty who were denied tenure specifically because they chose to work on problems outside of the mainstream, and were not able to publish enough top papers as a result. So, sure, they could work on "anything they wanted," but that ended up getting them fired. [bold in original]This isn't necessarily an obvious result of government funding, but, much later, that becomes a little easier to see after he compares research in academia to that in industry:
Okay, but how much freedom do you have in industry? This is worth a separate post on its own, which I will write sometime soon. The short version is that it depends a lot on the kind of job you have and what kind of company you work for. My team at Google has a pretty broad mandate which gives us a fair bit of freedom. But unlike academia, we aren't limited by funding (apart from headcount, which is substantial); technical skills (we can hire people with the skills we need); or the somewhat unpredictable whims of a research community or [National Science Foundation] panel. So, yes, there are limitations, but I think they are no more severe, and a lot more rational, than what you often experience as an academic. [bold and link in original]The NSF, as does any grant-giving organization, has to rely on experts from the fields for which it is to give grants. Who is an expert? Absent knowedge of a field -- a common circumstance of government officials -- one has to rely on what others in the field say, or use indirect measurements, such as number and prestige of publications. So far, so good. Private foundations would have a similar problem.
But private organizations ultimately are looking for results, be they profits or, say, cures for illnesses a charity has been founded to fight. These constraints would ultimately limit the number of wasted grants or the time during which bad decisions would go on. Government funding, on the other hand, is acquired without regard to profitability or purpose, and research results can, improperly, be used to affect public policy. The former means a a negative feedback mechanism for doling out bad grants is missing, and the latter means that there can be perverse incentives for funding bad research.
This is not to say that a company or a large charity could never, by lack of vigilance, follow a clique of experts down a dead end. But the nature of government, as a monopoly (which it should be), and as the institution that can legally coerce citizens, magnifies the danger of some theories becoming entrenched and of new approaches getting starved. (Let me add that I do not regard either taking money from people or dictating how they should live -- even if it were according to correct research results -- as proper uses of governmental power: The problem I am discussing merely compounds others.) Were research funding not centralized, the dangers of such entrenchment would be greatly diminished as funders that supported less fruitful work would not be the only (or main) game in town. At least our economy is free enough that we can see an example here and there.