Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

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.