02 April 2010

Another impediment to scientific progress

As a faculty member in the University of Texas system, there are two major ways my salary increases.

First, I can get promoted to a new rank. And, well, that typically only happens twice in an academic career: once when you’re promoted from assistant to associate professor, and once when you’re promoted from associate to full professor. Obviously, those raises are few and far between.

Second, I can earn merit raises. This is an annual evaluation of my achievements in teaching, research, and service. There’s a complex formula to determine this, but not surprisingly, more published science gets you more points, and potentially a bigger raise.*

Why does this system potentially stifle scientific progress?

This year could be the most productive year of my career to date. I’ve got two peer-reviewed papers so far (one out, one in press), a letter in Science, a contribution to the Open Laboratory 2009 anthology, and I’ve got several other projects that could get published this year.


From a purely rational economic point of view, it would be blindingly stupid of me to be publish anything this year.

Nobody is expecting to get any merit increase this year. Our university has been asked to make a budget cut of several percentage points due to the recession (as many institutions are). Travel budgets are among the first to go, but merit often also goes.

If I were smart, I should hold off on publishing my research during this academic year. I should submit things so that they’ll be published in the next academic year, when there’s at least a possibility that there might be merit money in it for me.

So I’ve just been given a financial incentive not to publish research as soon as I can. But it’s bloody hard for me to take the strictly rational route that economists tell me I should take in maximizing my own utility! As a scientist, I want my work out there as soon as possible. I want to be moving on to new projects, not sitting on completed manuscripts, waiting for the financial fortunes of the state to improve.

Has anyone else pointed this out to politicians and administrators and those who talk about scientific competitiveness, innovations that lead to economic recovery, and so on?

* Those of you playing along at home will notice that there is no cost of living increase.

Picture from Very Evolved.

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