Academia’s Function

Art fans often say art makes people more creative and peaceful, and sport fans often say sport makes people healthier and better at teamwork.  Some claim that these idealistic reasons are not only why art and sport should be subsidized, but why in fact donors actually give to art and sport charities.  I find it far more plausible that donors prefer to affiliate with other donors and with prestigious artists and athletes, and that citizens subsidize such things to make themselves look good as a group. The idea that cities build statues to mainly promote world peace and creativity, or that nations subsidize Olympic teams mainly to promote teamwork and exercise, seem a bit hard to swallow.

In a post titled “Another reason I’m glad I’m not an economist” Andrew Gelman took issue with my saying “academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive”:

Granted, Robin is far from a typical economist. Nonetheless, that he would write such an extreme statement without even feeling the need to justify it (and, no, I don’t think it’s true, at least not in the “academia” that I know about) . . . that I see as a product of being in an economics department.

Now I have posted many times here on my view that academia functions mainly to signal, much like art and sport. (See here here here here here here here here here.).  But for Andrew’s sake, let’s lay out the argument more systematically.

Academics get support from students, foundations, governments, media, and consulting clients.  Yes academics mainly publish papers, books, lectures, etc.; the question is why academics are paid to do this. The standard idealistic answer is that academics know useful and important things, things which students want to learn, media want to report, consulting clients want to apply, and which foundations and governments want to promote the creation and spread of, for the good of the everyone.

Andrew probably accepts this story largely at face value; after all he says voters vote out of altruistic concerns for their fellow citizens and the world. And when asked directly, “What do the customers who are paying your salary get from you?,” he answered, “They learn how to fit multilevel models.” But not only are these idealistic theories pretty implausible from an evolutionary point of view, they also have detailed problems.  Consider:

  • College students prefer to be taught by profs who research, and hence ignore students more, yet students have little idea what their profs research.  Students know and care a lot about their school’s general prestige, but know and care little about the research done there. There is relatively little relation between what profs teach, what profs research, and what students do after they graduate.
  • Patrons of research similarly pay lots more attention the prestige of a researcher and his institution than to how much his research could plausibly benefit the world or uncover important deep truths.  Prestige is set primarily by academic journals, who attend much more to whether a particular work was difficult and impressive while following standard methods than to its beneficial impact or deep insight.
  • Citizens prefer to fund their nations to maintain impressive researchers, but have little idea what those researchers do.  Citizens would rather that other nations did less research, so their nation can excel by comparison, and their funding preferences have little to do with the size of their nation relative to the world, or to the practical relevance of research topics.  In fact, academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth.
  • Reporters seeking quotes care primarily about the prestige of a researcher and his institution, requiring only the loosest connection between his research specialty and the topic at hand.  Engaging prestigious academics can become respected pundits on topics far from their research areas.  Clients seeking consulting care a lot more about the prestige of the consultant than what he actually says.  Corporation often fund basic research that gains them little other than connection with prestigious researchers.

Yes one might save the idealistic theory via various ad hoc assumptions, such as that people are ignorant in various specific ways and use prestige only as a heuristic to achieve their altruistic ends.  But it seems far simpler to me to just postulate that people care primarily about affiliating with others who have been certified as prestigious.

Andrew may disagree with me on where the weight of evidence lies, but why would that make him “glad I’m not an economist”?  It appears he thinks the theory I’ve outlined is not only wrong, but also distasteful.  He apparently thinks that having to attend to the details of social phenomena consistently forces social scientists to accept distasteful views on many social topics.  On that, he and I can agree.

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  • Robert

    “Citizens would rather that other nations did less research, so their nation can excel by comparison, and their funding preferences have little to do with the size of their nation relative to the world, or to the practical relevance of research topics. In fact, academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth.”

    I’m convinced of the broader argument, but at least in the public discussions I’ve heard in Australia, people regularly exclaim the practical use of science research and oppose it being ivory tower nonsense. In Australia, public research is regularly shut down on the pretense of not being practically useful. And I have never heard anyone say we would be better off with less research in other countries.

    It might be true that democracy is a poor mechanism for passing on the desire for useful reserach, or that it’s only one thing among many that people want (status and success being others). But most people at least think they care about useful outcomes from research, and would claim to be annoyed if they found their money was going towards something clearly frivolous.

    Or maybe I just move in economically rationalist circles.

    How confident of the empirical claim about academic research having little impact on the economy? I’ve read R&D has a big lagging impact and can sometimes explain differences between countries (between Oz and NZ for example).

  • Aron

    This is all just a failure of people to properly communicate the probability distributions of their assertions.

  • anon

    “Yes one might save the idealistic theory via various ad hoc assumptions, such as that people are ignorant in various specific ways and use prestige only as a heuristic to achieve their altruistic ends.”

    Huh? Rational ignorance is not an ad hoc assumption, but an established principle of public choice theory. There’s also little doubt that voters’ choices can be characterized as mildly altruistic/pro-social and idealistic, even though the occurrence of voting itself may be the result of signaling incentives.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Generic ignorance is not a sufficient assumption here; one has to assume particular mistakes.

  • roy bland

    “academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive”

    If what qualifies folk as “intellectually impressive” amounts to “adding to the stock of human knowledge” (with some error) then academia is primarily an institution for advancing human knowledge. Ah, you’re both right! Everybody hug.

    There now follows a short homily on behaviour and rationality, that I’m sure Robin is already well familiar with and probably disagrees with, but which I think may help explain academia. (Are we talking about what function academia performs, or the what motives are of students, the politicians who fund it, or those who work in it?). A sensible human being, playing a game, fully understanding the structure of the payoffs for herself and other players, may still choose to play a non-rational strategy that leads to the best co-operative payoff, even though the strategy is not an equilibrium in a non-cooperative game, because she believes there is merit in following a rule like “do what leads to the best co-operative payoff” even when it is not rational. This moral principle or social norm can be seen as a way of ‘solving’ the problem of how to reach the best all-round payoffs, despite individual rationality precluding them. We all agree to play nice. This is perfectly viable and indeed perhaps admirable way to go about conducting oneself, despite it violating economic rationality. It’s collectively rational, even if it isn’t individually rational. I’m not suggesting that people are always nice, or even often, but I think ‘doing the right thing’ explains a lot of behaviour, such as voting. I don’t think there’s anything ‘ad hoc’ about this – it’s a sensible theory of behaviour with just about as much empirical support as that of economic rationality (i.e. mixed). Once you permit this explanation, the mystery of why academia exists falls away – it exists because it generally seems like a good idea in the wider interest of society. The prestige seeking behaviour Robin documents is quite compatible with this explanation – academia can be used as a useful signaling device, and people may seek acclaim etc. without us having to believe that these things are the ‘real’ reason academia exists.

  • Noah Yetter

    As someone who started down the path of academia and then very quickly bailed out, I think your characterization is not only true, but indisputable.

    It’s obvious, when you think about it. Where can a professor typically create the most social utility per hour? In the classroom. And yet prestige as a professor and hours spent in the classroom are almost perfectly negatively correlated. You can get a degree at Harvard and never even be taught by a PhD.

    • kinbote

      the best teachers are very rarely the best researchers because you cannot cultivate the skills to become a high-quality teacher and high-quality researcher at the same time. there are unquestionably dispositional factors involved, too.

      so, no, i dont think a typical professor creates more social utility per hour in the classroom than in the lab or library. (much) more information needed.

      • Bob

        Which supports the point – why do top schools generally try to cultivate research stars on their faculty rather than teaching stars? It’s true that research can complement teaching, but when push comes to shove, it’s obvious which is seen as more important.

    • Z. M. Davis

      “Where can a professor typically create the most social utility per hour? In the classroom.”

      Excuse me? Writing a textbook creates a huge amount of social utility, because you can print thousands of copies and anyone can learn from them. But teaching worthless undergraduates, half of whom don’t even want to be there? Nonsense.

      “I think your characterization is not only true, but indisputable.”

      Funny that you say this: you seem to think academia is insane because there’s not enough teaching, whereas I think academia is insane because there’s too much teaching. I almost wonder if the lesson to draw is that all large social institutions are insane, because different people have different priorities, and we all play moronic political games trying to take control. What is the University for?—no one knows! It’s just there! Social evolutions are stupid.

      Just a thought. I could be totally wrong.

    • Mark

      What “degree from Harvard” is Noah talking about?

      I did my undergrad at Harvard and 100% – yes 100% no exceptions – of my classes were taught by professors NOT BY GRADUATE STUDENTS OR LECTURERS. To my knowledge, *all* had Ph.D.s. There may have been an odd exception (like those with PhD equivalent degrees from some other nations).

      Let’s at least tell the TRUTH.

      Mark, Harvard Class of 1990

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  • stephen

    Well, I would say that you are a social scientist, but whatever.

    One thing you left out of your list of objections: College degrees, at least as far as undergratuate degrees are conscerned, don’t actually teach students how to do anything!

    Once you have a degree you still need to become what amounts to an apprentice in order to become useful to anyone. It seems that that the main prupose of an undergraduate degree is to signal that you are smart enough and have a low enough time horizon in order to learn an actual skill set.

  • M

    “Andrew may disagree with me on where the weight of evidence lies, but why would that make him “glad I’m not a social scientist”?”

    I think that you misunderstand him. He is making a snide comment on where the value lies in your part of academia versus where the value lies in his part of academia.

  • Paul

    I think this post contains a kernel of truth that is blown up in a totally wrongheaded way. The kernel of truth is that people care about affiliating with others based on status or prestige. That is obviously true. Where it gets blown up is to say that this is THE FUNCTION of the entire institution. Another kind of story would go like this…
    People who know what they are talking about appear confident.
    Confidence becomes a signal for competence.
    Individuals who lack the knowledge to make inferences about the true state of the world (for example, college students “preferring” professors with more research background instead of focusing on teaching… I say this as someone who has a non-phd wife teaching the pants off of many tenured folks at a state school). status is a heuristic to use in the absence of better information or knowledge. Certainly there is free riding off of that, but on average it is going to be true… particularly now with the superstar system, chances are the Harvard professor quoted by the reporter is at the top of their field, hired with tenure away from some “farm school”.
    But to say that the only thing all these people care about is the signal of quality, but not quality itself is just not right. They care about the underlying signal.. they just don’t know a better way to choose.

  • http://bizop.ca michael webster

    Have you read Branded Nation?

  • Mike

    Robin,

    I enjoy your blog and while I often have an instinct to disagree with you, with time I find your perspective increasingly enlightening.

    I think your last point could use some elaboration: corporations sponsor research to gain status from affiliating with prestigious of researchers? One thing that strikes me about this statement is, large corporations are themselves a source of status. HP is powerful, its executive and research ranks are filled with elites, and it’s unclear to me how its prestige is enhanced by affiliation with universities or their researchers.

    It seems more likely that a company like HP is seeking a bargain on innovative work. Perhaps there are tax benefits to funding university research. Even if there aren’t, sponsoring university research *appears* charitable — it projects an image of HP as a corporation with social values, which builds rapport with consumers — and one can think of this as a “discount” on the price of research.

    In the end, HP is still ultimately seeking status — but it’s a different kind of status, I think.

    I would also add, that perhaps to convince your detractors it bears emphasis that these ideas apply in broad stroke, but not to all individuals. In particular, I think most academics who do what they do about of a genuine curiosity about the world, and according to these values would generously support universities as creators of knowledge, if they had the power. They attended prestigious universities because working with the best researchers gives ones the best prospects for employment to this end, and also gives ones the best tools to fulfill it. I gather your point is that this view of the world is actually very rare, and far too unsufficient to drive the level of support for academia that we actually observe.

  • josh

    Don’t forget the role academia plays in government, creating an official “scientific consensus” in favor of various government policies, while the government chooses who will receive research grants. As Moldbug wrote in his essay on Futarchy, this absolves our civil servants of formal responsibility while allowing them to retain real power and influence. Delightful symbiosis.

  • Neil

    Is the argument here that where people are principally judged by reputation, they can’t really be doing anything except “having reputation”?

    • gwern

      > Is the argument here that where people are principally judged by reputation, they can’t really be doing anything except “having reputation”?

      Or perhaps bad money drives out good; if universities hire & fire & reward based on reputation, and workers can either acquire reputation directly or do work that may get them reputation, those who take the former path may earn more reputation than the latter.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    You have pretty decent evidence that status seeking has some influence over academia, but the claim that academia is only about status seeking

    Also “academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth” seems dramatically untrue at least as far as biomedical research is concerned (which seems mostly academia-based), and not really true in computer science (where academic research seems to have decent even if indirect contribution to practice). But yes, I can imagine other disciplines where it’s true (theology departments on so many universities come to mind).

    • Andrew

      The vast majority R&D funding in the US is private enterprise, including biomedical research. I believe there is evidence that the private sector R&D is more productive in any case, though I am too lazy to come up with a cite for that. The majority of “basic” science research is still funded by the government, but the government’s percentage of that has been rapidly shrinking as well. As a percentage of the pie, academic research is relatively small.

      Most people are unaware of just how much R&D is privately funded by American companies. It accounts for a quarter of global R&D spending, as much as all sources of R&D in Europe combined, and the US governments generously fund R&D on top of this.

  • Robert Koslover

    Re “Citizens would rather that other nations did less research, so their nation can excel by comparison” — I recall some years ago that many prominent American scientists desperately attempted to advance the argument that the US Government should support massive programs in particle accelerators (e.g., the supercollider) and in controlled nuclear fusion, because if we (Americans) did not do so, then (drumroll please) the Europeans would! Huh? But if our goal is to gain scientific knowledge at a good return/cost ratio, then this is really an argument against US Govt funding, right? The proponents of the argument were blinded by their interest in money and prestige (personal, academic, and/or national), while pretending (rather ineffectively) that what they truly cared about was the pursuit of basic scientific knowledge. Speaking for myself, I would very much appreciate it if the many other nations of the world would devote more of their national wealth toward the advancement science. A rising tide lifts all boats.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    I could see in a tribal environment students wanting to have status by associating with a great teacher, but also genuinely wanting to learn the lessons of the great teacher, since he’s not unlikely to be some impressive alpha male who maybe can hunt/fight/seduce well. And in the tribal environment, people don’t have books and can’t study their admired person from afar–and perhaps we bring this sensibility with us to the classroom. The status argument makes sense, but I don’t see why it doesn’t also have to work along side the idealistic argument. Students want status associated with being around a high status teacher, but also want to learn his tricks. Also students don’t necessarily know what teachings the teacher would aim towards them, and so they might not want to dive into the literature, rather getting direct instruction.

    Also, Robin, how do you square your cynical view with the Big Five Personality suggestion that roughly half of people are more or less agreeable, and so seem to be more likely to genuinely be idealistic in their aims?

  • asher

    This is an interesting post. I don’t feel that I can speak to problems outside of my area, but I wonder what your opinion is of Microsoft Research. This is an institute set up by Microsoft, and where the employees have fairly regular access to the ‘real’ programmers; at the same time, it is recognized as essentially defining many of the most prestigious research directions in my field, at least over the last 10 years or so.

    My question is then, where does the chain break down? That is, are the programmers sent to talk to guys at MSR fake, and not interested in the progress? Are those programmers real, but their additions somehow waylaid? Are the academics who base their own research off of problems at MSR lying, to others or themselves?

    In some sense I would favour the last option, since it is in fact very difficult to come up with algorithms and ideas that consistently beat those already in practice, and those who do so often get hired away.

    (I’d like to note that this is quite different from what has been claimed about HP, giving away large amounts of money without consistent effort to bring the research into their business)

  • http://blog.seliger.com Jake

    I think you’re missing two important reasons: 1) that academics write papers because that’s part of a centuries old academic tradition, and nothing radical and pervasive enough has come along to disrupt that on a wide scale, and 2) papers are much, much easier to measure than, say, teaching, as Mark Oppenheimer writes in Judgment Day. Granted, this is like the old joke about a man who is searching for his keys under a street lamp, and when a cop asks where he lost them, he says that he lost them over in the dark but the light is better here. Being able to disentangle which issues are more important for which institutions and which people probably isn’t easy.

    He also argues that ignorance and other factors can’t explain away the predilection for publishing professors, but I don’t think that’s enough; books like Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus make me think otherwise.

  • RV

    So why are you an academic then?

  • Floccina

    The other night on a PBS show they mentioned that their was very high unemployment and underemployment among Egyptian college grads. The grads complained that they had no chance to use what they had learned. The first thought in my mind was that colleges must not be teaching much that is useful. The needs and wants in Egypt are great so why can’t useful knowledge be taught and then applied. I think that it is related to what Robin is saying. You get prestige from studying and displaying knowledge only in certain areas most of them impracticable in the Egyptian economy. Further useful knowledge is often simple enough to grasp that it earns little prestige to know it.

    • kinbote

      one could also argue that dissecting novels, debating ideologies, and constructing elaborate but useless statistical models from the comfort of a cosy office is more ”emotionally stimulating” and thus enjoyable (to most people) than learning the dry facts and procedures that one is required to know to be useful.

      where raw pleasure-seeking (or displeasure-avoidance) ends and prestige seeking begins is not an easy question to answer.

  • Doc Merlin

    You have it backwards, in western welfare-state countries… the people prefer that OTHER countries do the research and they reap the rewards. This is why, for example, most of europe makes it illegal for drug companies to recoup r&d costs by the price of the medicines they sell.

    Its only heavily militarized countries that also have strong desire to keep some secrecy in their tech and free market non-welfare-state countries that have a strong desire to do the research on their own.

  • http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/blog/ Andrew Gelman

    Hi, Robin. I will have to read your blog entry in more detail, but just glancing at it, I noticed what we used to call a “Freudian slip”:

    You wrote, “In a post titled ‘Another reason I’m glad I’m not a social scientist’ Andrew Gelman took issue . . .”

    Actually, my blog post was titled, “Another reason I’m glad I’m not an economist.”

    I partly identify as a political scientist and I would never say that I’m not a social scientist!

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Sorry; I just fixed it, changing “social scientist” to “economist.”

  • kevin

    Whatever about the merits of the arguments, it has nothing to do with being an economist,social scientist or truck driver for that matter. It appears that Andrew is inferring something about economics based on a sample of one. D’oh. Makes me glad I am not a statistician.

  • http://www.positiveliberty.com James Hanley

    To echo Gelman, he certainly is a social scientist. But as a fellow political scientist, I find his response mildly embarrassing to the discipline.

  • http://www.athousandnations.com Mike Gibson

    To further support Robin’s argument, I offer exhibit A, Harvard’s relationship with Larry Summers. From an ESPN article (hat tip Russ Roberts) written in April I learn:

    “…the White House also disclosed that Summers, a former president of Harvard, received $587,000 in teaching salary from Harvard in 2008. This surely makes Summers the highest-paid professor in world history. How could Summers possibly have done $5.2 million worth of work for a hedge fund, and traveled the country to give 40 speeches, and done $587,000 worth of teaching at Harvard?”

    How now! I submit that all of the above feted and courted Summers, not for any truths he possesses, or any he might find, but for the influence he wields and the attention he generates. In a word–status. That he is the highest paid professor in history is laughable. The few people I know who have taken classes from him have done nothing but speak ill of his teaching. He’s awful. They said it was like listening to Montgomery Burns drone on for 55 minutes.

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  • UchicagoMan

    Yeah, but Summers was President of the university, not a life-long committed researcher or teacher for that matter… Like any member (past or present) of a University’s board (especially Harvard), he is primarily a socio-political-money force for the University.

    Consider what happened with Cornell West and him.
    If anything the Cornell West vs. Summers incident is perhaps a good example for understanding aspects of academia’s function …

    Teaching is an art, that is valuable in itself.
    Sharing the joy of discovery is intrinsically valuable as well.
    Education doesn’t need to have an economic or prestige purpose.
    Rather it may simply be a component of personal enrichment.

    In my opinion Cornell West personifies this type (albeit unique) of spirited personal enrichment…

    What does Summers personify?

    What role do WE choose to engage with academia?

  • http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/blog/ Andrew Gelman

    I’ll write something fuller on my own blog, but I have to admit I envy Robin the lively and thoughtful participation he gets here. Robin is certainly doing something right to be generating this sort of discussion every day.

  • Mike

    Thought experiment: If Harvard dropped to #50 in the US News rankings (and collective consciousness in general), would Harvard alums be upset? If so, why?

    If Harvard was one of the best colleges when the alums attended; why care about the subsequent drop in ranking? All that should matter to alums was this: It was a great school that imparted great knowledge when the alum attended.

    Of course, we all know how alums would react. Why the negative reaction? If university is about knowledge rather than prestige, then a drop in rankings shouldn’t matter to alum.

    • gwern

      > Of course, we all know how alums would react. Why the negative reaction? If university is about knowledge rather than prestige, then a drop in rankings shouldn’t matter to alum.

      Isn’t it a little unfair to expect them to expect *no* reward whatsoever? If Harvard dropped so precipitously, then their future economic expectations are greatly lowered. Say they each lose a few million in prospects; everyone would understand if they were upset were a thief to empty their bank accounts, so why wouldn’t they be upset to see their future salaries/remuneration similarly decreased? Even if they didn’t enter expecting those benefits, they were still going to gain them.

      Money is money, after all. (Not to mention they will suffer in other respects, such as the general loss of social prestige.)

      • Mike

        Well, how is what you’re saying a refutation of what I (or Robin) wrote? If anything, you concede that people attend universities for the status. Which was Robin’s point. My proposed thought experiment was just another way of supporting Robin’s contention.

  • http://arundelo.com/ Aaron Brown

    idealistic theories pretty plausible

    Presumably should be “implausible”.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Sorry, I just fixed this error.

  • EH

    “Prestige is set primarily by academic journals, who attend much more to whether a particular work was difficult and impressive while following standard methods than to its beneficial impact or deep insight.”

    This statement rings false, at least for the sciences, which are admittedly the only academic journals I’m familiar with. These journals primarily care about the impact factor of the articles, which is directly related to citations. Citations are a measurement of how frequently an article is used. Articles that are frequently cited usually include either a new technique or an important discovery. In the most prestigious journals, there is a good chance that both will be present in the same article.
    As for the drug companies versus academia debate (and who actually does the research), the answer is yes. Drug companies do the lengthy and expensive clinical research needed to develop a drug candidate, academics do the basic research needed to design and validate a drug.

  • Psychohistorian

    “College students prefer to be taught by profs who research”

    I doubt this is true. College students prefer to attend institutions that employ profs who research, because these institutions are more prestigious. I did my undergrad at a top University of California, and the teaching was generally mediocre. I and my friends often thought very little of our professors who read in a monotone, or took three lectures to cover a ten-minute topic, or were otherwise completely uninvested in the teaching portion of their jobs. But I had no real way to find out about how good the teaching was before I got there, and once I was there, I was constrained to take classes that I needed to fulfill my majors regardless of who taught them, though I did choose as many as I could based on good professors teaching them. But, really, what mattered most from the outside was prestige and fellow student caliber; I learned far more useful from my peers and other activities than I did from classes; indeed, my understanding of economics has probably benefited more from my post-graduation perusal of a variety of blogs and books on the topic than it did from the teaching of courses that made up economics major.

    The ultimate cause here supports RH’s theory, I believe. Academia value research, largely because that’s where the money is. Academia-appraising institutions value research, because academia values research and, more importantly, it’s easy to measure, and it is basically these institutions that grant prestige. Students value prestige because it affects their self-worth (and their parents’) and their career opportunities (or at least they think it does). This is how we get a system that is much, much worse at teaching than it would be if teaching were the actual focus.

    If the prestige-granting institutions (like USN&WR) ignored research as a criterion for undergraduate education and instead focused on prestige-unrelated variables (graduate school test scores, some measure of professor quality), you’d see prestige, teaching skill, and student caliber line up. I sincerely doubt that will happen, because I don’t see USN&WR having a reason to care about how well students learn. Plus, it’s path-dependent; it’d lose credibility if it totally changed its system.

    As an interesting anecdote, I recall Newsweek published a list of the top 1-500 high schools in the country. I looked up my high school, which was among the top public schools in California, which I figured gave it a shot. No dice. So I looked at their criterion. It was: (Number of AP exams taken)/(Number of students)= Score. Not average score. Passing not even required. Nothing about college matriculation, SAT scores, future income, nothing. Just that simple formula, which is extremely easy to game and seems more likely to correlate with funding (and to a degree, size) than with educational quality. But it’s an incredibly easy thing to measure, so the prestige-granting media uses it, because why the hell should they care if it’s truly accurate?

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Robin, could you quantify the contribution of signaling to the overall funding of academia? In other word, in a world where an association with academics could not be used to signal superior quality, how much funding would there be for universities?

    I have no doubt that academia is in large part dependent on the signaling aspect but a specific way of signaling does not evolve in the absence of a correlated value per se. It is clear that science is useful in solving many problems, knowledge of science is useful, being networked with competent, high IQ, conscientious persons is useful, having a brand name that reduces need for quality verification is also useful – and all of these are academia’s outputs. So there is something to academia beyond signaling and the important question here would be how to quantify the relative contributions of value per se vs. pure signaling to a university’s bottom line.

    Do you have then some quantitative ideas?

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  • http://www.xuenay.net/ Kaj Sotala

    Robin, I find your discussions of signaling fascinating. Is there any book on the subject you (or somebody else) could recommend, thoroughly presenting both the theory and applications of signaling as seen by economists?

  • http://riskmarkets.blogspot.com/ Jason Ruspini

    It is often useful to think as Robin does that “X is not about X”. At some point content becomes less important than fostering relationships in many pursuits. I am pretty sure that parents mostly pay for prestige when they send their children to big name colleges, because the price differential vs discounted state schools is so large. For an undergrad education, the content of the instruction can’t vary by an order of magnitude, as prices would imply with a “commonsense” interpretation. Andrew view’s is right about the logical function and history of academia, but he needs to elaborate it more to justify it from an economic perspective.

    You could argue that parent are paying for future relationships outside of a signalling framework.

    Or you could try to argue that eventually signals will revert to fundamental values in-line with underlying education. It is interesting that Robin often takes the “X is not about X” tack, yet has relatively sanguine views about the sustainability of market manipulation. In many markets, the price of X can stray from being mainly about X for some time.

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  • Doug S.

    College students prefer to be taught by profs who research, and hence ignore students more, yet students have little idea what their profs research. Students know and care a lot about their school’s general prestige, but know and care little about the research done there. There is relatively little relation between what profs teach, what profs research, and what students do after they graduate.

    [citation needed]

    Also, keep in mind that there’s a big difference between undergraduate education and graduate education… the incentives and goals of a student seeking a bachelor’s degree tend to be different than a student seeking a masters or doctorate. (On the undergraduate level, it doesn’t matter that much if your professor does research; on the graduate level, it can make a big difference.)

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    “Citizens would rather that other nations did less research”

    Why do you think this?

    “In fact, academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth.”

    Even Project HINDSIGHT, the DoD’s massive investigation into the relative utility of academic vs. industrial research in defense contracts, which concluded that industrial research was much more important, actually indicated that academic research produced, IIRC, 20 times as many benefits per dollar as industrial research. And this figure is too small by at least an order of magnitude, because project HINDSIGHT neglected to factor in that the results of one academic research program can be applied to more than one industrial research project.

  • mkamdar

    Robin,

    On a somewhat related note, I would be interested in your take on expert witnesses in litigation and the (applicability and adequacy of the) Daubert standard.

  • Sean

    When I was on the economics job market, I was never asked about teaching, I was evaluated almost entirely on my research potential. In my current tenure-track position, what do my department chair and dean care about? Publications mostly, reputation in my field secondarily, and lastly pass some minimum threshold in student course evaluations. Robin’s argument is a slam dunk with respect to what research universities pay professors for: They pay us to have a reputation as experts (because the “salary” of a university as determined by students, donors, and grants is largely a function of the perceived expertise of its faculty), and evaluation of expertise is largely left to the peer-reviewed journals.

    As we try to build our case for tenure, it is made crystal clear to junior economics faculty at research universities that our job is to earn a reputation as the best researcher possible, which is largely evaluated by assessing where are papers are published (and how many). At the best research universities, there is an additional hurdle: Not only must you publish well, but you must earn a reputation as someone making important contributions to your field (top places are not content to let the journals make near-exclusive judgment of “important”). However, these contributions don’t have to have any practical significance at all, they just have to impress “important” economists, who in their youth had to impress “important” economists, and so on.

    This is not as cold as it may sound, most of us deeply enjoy doing research, and hope it might some day have some marginal impact outside of academia. But the “game” we play in order to get and keep our jobs is almost purely one of signaling our expertise, not actually doing something noble or intrinsically valuable.

    An anecdote: A reporter was roaming our hallway one day looking for telegenic people to talk about the economic crisis. I told her I’d love to talk about sports or politics, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable offering a “professional” opinion on the economy because I’m a theorist and hadn’t kept up with a lot of the new data coming in (this was late October 2008). She told me it didn’t matter whether I knew anything about the crisis or not, all she needed was my Ph.D. and university affiliation, which certified me as an expert. She was not interested in my opinion about sports or politics, because I had no credentials in those subjects. Because it is only my reputation among academic economists that matters for my job prospects, and because a public appearance can have a negligible (at best) positive influence but a potentially huge negative influence on my reputation in that small group (if I say something stupid), I declined the interview in no uncertain terms.

    • Michael Bishop

      Sean, Great anecdote. Are you willing to reveal your full name, institution, and the newspaper in question?

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  • David Davis

    An overlooked area in the “is research in academic institutions valuable is the notion that active researchers make for better informed teachers. It seems that professors that do research are imminently more informed teachers than those that do not research. Requiring professors to research also seems an effective way to keep them current on recent developments, and an efficient monitoring mechanism for administrators.

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    Robin, what’s the evidence for your assertion that “academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth”? If I simply look around my house, a considerable fraction of the objects in it have benefited in some way from academic research.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I’m summarizing standard views in the fields of econ of growth and econ of research.

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  • ScentOfViolets

    So, let me get this straight: Maxwell’s insights into electromagnetism weren’t really all that important – certainly less important than his teaching. Boltzmann and his notions of entropy, statistical mechanics – and even the physical existence of atoms! – well, that’s nice, but it’s not really important. Quantum mechanics in all it’s manifold appearances, solid state theory, theory of computation, electron microscopes, the discovery of the structure of DNA, the internet, computer languages . . . all of this is less important than ‘signaling’, whatever that is, or teaching.

    Gotcha. I myself think otherwise; but then again I’m into the hard sciences, and you are not.

    • Constant

      Times change. That Maxwell’s equations were useful does not mean that, today, science is, on the whole, useful. Massive government funding of science may have ruined it, as it may have ruined education and art, all of them having become Kafkaesque bureaucracies doling out state patronage.

  • ScentOfViolets

    Really? How recently? Is the LHC an enormous boondoggle? How about the theory of magnetoresistance and the concurrent rise of magnetoresistive RAM? How about quantum computing? This is off the very top of my head, and very much in-the-news sort of stuff, a fragment of a fragment of all the academic research going on today.

    This posting almost qualifies as ‘not even wrong’. Again, I’m guessing this is from the perspective of an academic employed in the softer parts, and where he’s posting from I’d tend to agree. But that’s not all of academia, far from it. It’s not even the most significant part. That would be mathematics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, computer science, etc.

    • Constant

      The LHC doesn’t obviously contribute to economic growth. Granted, the LHC may be used to discover Very Important Things, but that’s not what was at issue. Similarly, getting somebody on the moon, and exploring Mars, are Very Important and Wonderful Things, but they probably have not done all that much to increase GDP.

      On firmer ground with research more closely tied to new tech, but before anything definite is said, it’s necessary to quantify how much research is academic and how much business, and to what extent academic research contributes over and above business research.

  • ScentOfViolets

    The LHC doesn’t obviously contribute to economic growth.

    Funny thing that, but back in Maxwell’s day, EM theory didn’t contribute much to ‘economic growth’ either. Nor did Boltzmann’s dogged insistence that atoms were real, physical things, and not merely artifacts of calculation. Ditto for the other relatively early stuff I initially mentioned.

    Should the administrators back then have not funded their research and their careers on the grounds that there was ‘no obvious economic benefit’? Further:

    On firmer ground with research more closely tied to new tech, but before anything definite is said, it’s necessary to quantify how much research is academic and how much business, and to what extent academic research contributes over and above business research.

    I think we can safely say, he says drily, that modern computing techniques and the modern computer simply would not exist without the theory. I’d also say that you’ve got your “over and above” exactly backwards – it’s to what extent business research contributes over and above academic research, not vice versa.

    Finally, I dispute the notion that it’s all about the economic benefits. Just knowing that atoms exist, that there are four forces that mediate every known physical reaction, etc. is a good all it’s own. I merely pointed out a few very obviously useful items that came out of ‘useless’ academia on the basis that while some people might argue the merits of various fields ‘abstract’ knowledge, very few will come out against the utility of lasers, gene therapy, computers, etc.

    • Constant

      Funny thing that, but back in Maxwell’s day, EM theory didn’t contribute much to ‘economic growth’ either.

      Do you actually know that or are you just saying that? Your position seems to be that Maxwell’s equations (a) contributed greatly to economic growth, but (b) this contribution did not begin until long after the discovery was made. That is a pretty specific claim. Can you back it up?

      I think we can safely say, he says drily, that modern computing techniques and the modern computer simply would not exist without the theory.

      If you mean computer science, Mencius Moldbug, who seems to have knowledge of the topic, claims that contemporary computer science has little impact on computing. See for example this essay.

      For example:

      anyone who’s not involved in CS research treats the products of this endeavor as if they were smallpox-infected blankets. …

      This is not just prejudice. It is rational mistrust. Academics, as we’ve seen, have no incentive to build software that’s actually relevant, and every incentive to build software that appears to be relevant. …

      The result is a world of Potemkin software which appears to be enormously useful, even revolutionary. In reality it is unusable. The researchers are some of the smartest people in the world, and surely some of what they’re doing has some merit. But it is almost impossible to figure out what’s wheat and what’s chaff, and most sensible people just don’t come near it.

      I’d also say that you’ve got your “over and above” exactly backwards – it’s to what extent business research contributes over and above academic research, not vice versa.

      That’s just a word game and it doesn’t make sense in context. The question is to what extent academia influences business, and in the context of this question, the appropriate specific question is to what extent academic research influences business outcomes over and above the influence of business research.

  • http://www.mrfm.org John Sidles

    IMHO, it’s pretty hard to talk intelligently about the role of academia in general, and specifically almost impossible to talk about the role of academia, without a pretty good awareness of the material covered in ISA scholar Jonathan Israel’s two-volume history of the Enlightenment, namely Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested.

    In essence, the take-home message is that in return for stable financial support, modern scholars (by and large) have agreed to restrict their enterprises to what Israel calls the Moderate Enlightenment (of Newton and Locke) as contrasted with the Radical Enlightenment (having origins largely in Spinozism).

    It is a paradox of our times that many (most?) individual academics regard themselves as Radicals, and yet modern academia as a whole is devoutly Moderate … and this is why a quick reading of the Prof. Israel’s Postscript to Enlightenment Contested (available on-line at Google Books) is highly recommended for those academics who still entertain Radical hopes and values.

  • proaonuiq

    1. Knowledge is the set of truths (can we let the explanation of what is truth for other day?).
    2. In every society the functions of the knowledge cycle are to generate knowledge (trought research), to mantain or memorize it (canonizing, i.e. writing handbooks and other academic genres), to transmit it (by teaching) and to transfer it (transforming knowledge in usefull actions). In our societies all these functions are developped (not exclusivelly) by academia.
    3. Academics are the agents wich realize these important functions (truth generators, keepers, transmiters and…¿transferers?).
    4. Generate, mantain, transmit and transfer are all dificult tasks, so society is interested that the best ones occupies academic positions. 5. In general the best way to select the best ones is trough fair competitions. Those who win the competitions occupies the positions. It is fair, ins´t it ?
    6. The impression society in general and some of its agents in particular (college students, patrons of research, citizens, reporters and others) has that academics are intelectually impressive and prestigious is a byproduct of having won a competition, not the function of academia.
    7. Now, beeing an academic is also a responsability. Society want truth keepers to no let a lie inside the canon and no truth outside, no matter where the truth or lie comes from. This forces Academia to be both open and conservative at the same time and academics to be reluctant to the science-business model. New web mechanisms are appearing so that the conditions for the realisation of the second half of this mandate are fulfilled (i.e. Rejecta Mathematica, Virax)…but competition winners read its content ? On the other hand i see no mechanism yet so that academic hype is controlled and the first half remains unfulfilled.

    P.D: Hi John…trough Nielsen´s, right ?

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  • http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/ Richard H. Serlin

    “Patrons of research similarly pay lots more attention the prestige of a researcher and his institution than to how much his research could plausibly benefit the world or uncover important deep truths.”

    A big part of the problem is just (gigantic) asymmetric information. It’s very hard for a layperson to know the expected value of a chunk of research.

    But look let’s keep in mind that as much as academics and students and donors are prestige and credential driven, academia has still come up with advances that have doubled lifespan, gigantically increased food supply, virtually eradicated smallpox and polio,…It is by no stretch of the imagination all show and no go.

  • http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/ Richard H. Serlin

    “In fact, academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth.”

    Maybe in the short run, but in the long run?? Discovery of DNA, invention of the computer, discovery of penicillin,…

  • http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/ Richard H. Serlin

    “In fact, academic research contributes little to overall economic innovation and growth.”

    Do you mean for a specific country, as opposed to the world, given the difficulty of charging for its use?

    Otherwise, it would be hard understand how we could have advanced so much and so fast in wealth and health without basic scientific research. Computers and DNA work crucially depend on basic work in physics and mathematics. And economics, although flawed and wasteful, has contributed nonetheless greatly to efficiency and advancement over the last two-hundred-fifty years, with the work of Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Solow,

  • http://richardhserlin.blogspot.com/ Richard H. Serlin

    From a Wired magazine interview/article on the great growth economist Paul Romer:

    “At the same time, he [Romer] believes it’s vital that government supports basic research, the birthplace of ideas.

    Romer suggests concentrating funds on universities, both to stimulate basic research and to create cadres of highly educated people who will fan out into the economy and generate new technologies.”

    At: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.06/romer_pr.html

    I also really like this quote from Romer, “There is a real world out there, and I want to get the right answers.”

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