05 December 2008

Incentives for researchers

The Economist recently reported on research into the 'broken windows' theory of crime: that where the windows are broken, or similar conditions of 'disorder' prevail, crime rates go up:
The most dramatic result, though, was the one that showed a doubling in the number of people who were prepared to steal in a condition of disorder. In this case an envelope with a €5 ($6) note inside (and the note clearly visible through the address window) was left sticking out of a post box. In a condition of order, 13% of those passing took the envelope (instead of leaving it or pushing it into the box). But if the post box was covered in graffiti, 27% did. Can the can, 'The Economist', 20 November
It's good that this sort of research is conducted, and even better when it can be applied to solve social problems. In my view, though, there are too few incentives to explore this sort of relationship; the sort, that is, which is not at all obvious or intuitive. Most social and environmental problems are bedevilled by similar complexity, with the relationships between cause and effect obscured by huge numbers of variables, time lags, severe data limitations and the difficulty and expense of conducting trials. That said, a large proportion of the resources allocated to research programmes comes directly or indirectly from government, with all the usual deficiciences that that implies One important such deficiency, in my view, is that there will typically be no link between successful research and the financial rewards paid to the researchers. The result is predictable: too much academic research - in any academic field - has drifted away from the concerns of ordinary people. A glance at any economics (for instance) journal will convince most of that.

By subordinating policy to society's wishes, expressed in terms of clear, verifiable outcomes, a Social Policy Bond regime would automatically re-orientate the system of allocating research funding in ways that improve those outcomes. There will always be obsurities in research in the social sciences, but Social Policy Bonds would transfer the cost of conducting inappropriate or useless research to the researchers themselves, rather than, as is usual nowadays, the taxpayer.

No comments: