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Some people think that number of publications or citations, weighted by venue prestige, is an adequate measure of one key kind of academic productivity. To such people, tenure looks inefficient. Why not just pay academics per output? Sure an institution might invest in someone before they get max productive, and wait out modest temporary fluctuations in output. And they might pay for other outputs, like teaching, or journal editing. But why commit, via tenure, to keeping someone even if their output drops to zero and stays there?
However, I see publications or citations as currently a rather poor measure of academic output. I’ve tried to design better measures, and if we used such a better measure, then I’d also tend to agree that tenure looks inefficient. But in our current environment, a world without tenure becomes a world in which all academics are forced to achieve bad measures for their entire careers.
In many fields today, publications and citations are at least a decent measure of intellectual effort, organization, and rigor. For example, in fields that make heavy use of math, statistics, logical coherence, or careful reading of texts. The ability to publish in such fields shows that you can at least think carefully about a research topic, have sufficient energy get stuff done, and sufficient organization to compete your projects.
When academics who have passed that sort of filter are given tenure, then a substantial fraction of them will turn their attention to topics that are actually of fundamental interest, and then those people will have a substantial chance of actually make progress on those topics. This is the big payoff from such a system, and it just won’t happen as much without tenure.
Alas, many fields today lack sufficient rigor in their standard research methods to make this system work. Sloppy thinking can get you publications there, and so when those folks are freed by tenure to pursue what actually seems interesting, they continue to do so sloppily. And not only is their sloppy research much less likely to result in useful progress, the progress it does induce is communicated badly, making it much harder to understand and build upon.
That’s why I think tenure should continue, why research funding should focus on fields with rigorous research methods, and why tenure should be preferentially given to those who seem actually interested in making progress. Such a tenure system can filter out the sloppy and disorganized thinkers, and at some point in their careers free the rest to try to find interesting topics on which to actually make progress. Even if they radically change their topics and methods, they will have a much better chance of making real progress.
Yes, this approach, by itself, only induces interesting research in areas where progress can be achieved by researchers whose main support is having tenure. In contrast, research that needs larger budgets or other key inputs requires funders who can judge who to fund, or what judged-not-too-much-later outcomes show actual useful progress.