I was chatting over dinner the other night with a scientist friend about how to measure an academic scientist’s productivity. Thinking about it since it’s struck me how much we seem to have lost the plot as a society with this need to reduce everything to a quantifiable outcome instead of measuring quality – and that’s put into sharp relief when you look at scientists and teachers.
In a widget manufacturing plant the relative output for input is obvious, and it’s obvious because the outputs are directly measurable widgets. But what on earth are we expecting a research scientist or a teacher to output? Published papers is the obvious metric for scientists and good marks for teachers. But what of the scientist that sits and mulls over one truly great idea for months and years – is that worth less than someone pouring out papers that in the end amount to marginal advances? Or the teacher whose class marks go up because they’ve rote-taught the students to the test as opposed to the teacher who engenders a love of learning and an inquiring mind in the students?
The very act of reducing valid outputs to something you can measure circumscribes activity in a way which can only be impoverishing.
A continual focus on numerical productivity can only reduce thinking, contemplation and discussion – and it’s those things that lead to great ideas, breakthroughs and innovation. For example, I would venture to say that no University or research institution would see their academics’ contributions to Twitter as a productive use of their time – but today think just how much intrinsic value is gained through the dissemination and discussion of ideas on Twitter.
There’s no question there needs to be a means of rewarding those who are performing well, but we need to recognise that not every field can be reduced to hard numbers and directly measurable outputs. Worse: Once we start to count in a simplistic way, we then start to simplistically judge. We start by counting outputs and then we place value-judgments on those outputs – as can clearly be seen in recent discussions by our Government on what constitutes valid scientific research.
Of course this would matter less if both schools and scientific research were more properly funded. But as long as our government devalues both these fields and tries to tie funding to spuriously measurable outcomes we will continue to do damage in areas that are about ideas and not widgets.
One facet of this I find fascinating to contemplate is that even as our Government focuses on measuring and locking-down our scientists and teachers, the big IT companies like Google and Atlassian give their creative staff the freedom to spend time on projects that interest them without demanding a measurable output. I do wonder if there’s a model there that a brave academic institution or school could adopt – if you’re going to measure productivity by the numbers, then fence off some of the week so that your thinkers have the space to pursue the left-field idea, to talk to others, to try something out that has little chance of success.
Now there, if you can take time off from being demonstrably productive, is an idea to contemplate.