Academia ‘Plays the Market’ With Dire Consequences for Science

By: Carmen Elena Dorobăț

Higher education professionals have become increasingly specialized in ‘cheating the system’ over the past 50 years. The table below excellently summarizes the findings of Edwards and Roy in their recently published work on “Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition”.

The mismatch between the intended effect of incentives and regulations in academia, and their actual effects is striking, but hardly unexpected. For instance, rewarding teachers for students’ test scores has only led to grade inflation, short-term learning, and teaching to the test. Equally, rewarding university departments for their ranking and number of graduates has led to extensive efforts to game and cheat the rankings, and a reduction in entrance and graduation requirements.

Edwards and Roy draw attention to the fact that this trend can only lead to the corruption of—and loss of trust in—the scientific enterprise itself. In fact, we may be already well on the way to that. A survey published last year shows a significant depreciation of the public’s opinion (and scientists’ opinions as well) on scientific findings and higher-education degrees, concerning their quality and relevance to everyday life.

Mistaking the disease for its cure, the authors call for “academia and federal agencies [to] better support science as a public good, and incentivize altruistic and ethical outcomes, while de-emphasizing output.” But the problems of 21st century academia (and education in general) stem precisely from it being seen as a public good, only to be provided by governments or with governmental support.

The actual explanation for this state of affairs is that higher education and scientific research have been cut off from its customers by government intervention (through subsidization, student loans, and regulation). Thus, instead of allocating resources through monetary calculation—and thereby also controlling for incentives, and the quality of research and education output—, scientific institutions are left to stumble in the dark.

In this island of calculation chaos, they “play the market”, pretending to be entrepreneurial and business-like, and coming up with awkward metrics as clumsy proxies for market prices.  

Academics may disavow, in vain, the “commoditization” of education and knowledge. Like it or not, education is a commodity to be provided to customers. These fundamental traits cannot be wished away by dreaming of altruistic teachers and ethical researchers, any more than central planning can be made viable by wishing for a society of angels.

Academia has no chance of ever getting out of this rut without getting out in the market.