17 June 2010

The downsides of meritocracy

Academia is supposed to be a meritocracy: You rise through the ranks because your work (and, by extension, you) is better than someone else’s. I think this emphasis on merit might be doing people a disservice, in a couple of ways.

The entire process de-emphasizes happenstance and luck. People chase and chase and chase after those grants and high impact publications, figuring that if they just work that much harder, they must get them. Particularly in tight financial times like these, where there are more proposals and papers submitted than can be published, you’re essentially playing a lottery. There is just no way to be that much more outstanding than all the other bright people to ensure success.

And I think this can be very demoralizing for people. Academics are usually very bright people. For much of their lives, things have often been relatively easy for them academically. They do well in school, through their undergrad degree, grad school, and so on.

But then they start reaching the point where things aren’t working as well as one would hope. They get a job at an undergrad university instead of that major research university you’ve been working towards for a decade or more. They don’t get the grant. Again. You can’t get the publications in the journals you want. And when these things happen? There’s that little niggling voice in the back of your head saying, “Well, it’s a meritocracy, so you deserve what you get. Loser.”

From reading a lot of other academic blogs, and comments thereupon, I sense that a very particular path of success in research is presented to students that utterly buys into the meritocracy model and utterly discounts the lottery-like aspects of the career.

It could impede science more generally. People could be pursuing that last experiment, that last piece of data so that they can get it in a “better” journal, rather than publishing something that is perfectly interesting in its own right for others to see. People can get to be afraid of shipping.

For a supposed left-wing institution, academia often has some of the competitive elements associated with right-wing politics.


AK said...

The big problem with "meritocracy", IMO, is that the people judging "merit" have their own agendas, often with real merit being fairly far down on the list. Nor does this process have to occur at the conscious level, I suspect everybody's had experience with people whose "honest" judgments were dominated by social or ideological factors obvious to everybody but them.

Consider also the history of Lysenkoism in the old Soviet Union. (Personally I would add the Marxist influence in anthropology demonstrated by e.g. Margaret Mead.)

As a libertarian, I'm more comfortable with a competitive free-market system where merit is at least partly determined by the "invisible hand", although I've seen "meritocracies" in large corporations fall prey to the same type of problem (and at least sometimes seen these companies run into major trouble in the marketplace as a result, IMO).

Descriptions of Academia from both the inside and outside have always struck me as showing a dominance of social and political interference with the supposed "meritocracy". (Of course, as a libertarian that's what I expect to see, which may contribute to the impression.)

Consider, for instance, from your own link, "the negative consequences that come with wasting money, annoying someone in power or making a fool of yourself." (Bolding mine.) "[A]nnoying someone in power" is a matter of social or ideological politics, not merit or even luck.

Becca said...

Academia is fundamentally a hugely conservative enterprise (in a sense, this is by design. Who will teach the successes of prior generations knowledge acquisition more than the academy?). They aren't about to change how they select merit overnight.

I think that, at least in fairly flush times, the meritocracy thing might motivate some people. If after a certain point, there's no point in working harder in the lab instead of smoozing at a conference, why would anyone do the extra experiments rather than create a buzz around what they've got?
If it's dumb luck, why not go home and play computer games rather than doing either?

At the same time, whether or not it is a useful illusion to believe hard work and intelligence pay off, believing that meritocracy is both RIGHT and ATTAINABLE is sometimes logically unsupportable.

I think most people who advocate for meritocracy (including most libertarians I've met) always assume they themselves are meritorious, and also have not thought deeply about the implications of things like Moneyball.
Even when the stakes are HUGE, entire enterprises can be completely wrong about how to judge merit.
Saying "people have agendas" isn't a sensible summary of that problem- the primary agenda of a baseball team manager is to win games (and make money)- there's nothing shady there.

The free market assumes people have access to good information to weigh their choices, and that people are rational. Leaving aside the enormous elephant in the room of the rationality issue (e.g. people not getting better at judging merit because they are afraid abandoning their old approach would make them look foolish, and thus not refining their skills), we often just don't have good information. I'm not sure anyone has identified the appropriate qualities for success in science, for instance.

Judging merit isn't totally impossible, but it is infernally difficult.

Albrecht said...

You hit the nail on the head when you write: "Academia is supposed to be a meritocracy." since what this hints at quite clearly that it is indeed not.

And this simply comes down to lack of financing - private entities will only finance research with a guaranteed roi and public financing has been mercilessly cut for the last 30 years.

As soon as funding is scarce, competition for that funding turns dirty and then it's about having the right connections, not pissing people off, overselling, risk-free research and yes, a bit of luck.

This holds of course not only in academia - technically, most industrialized countries are supposed to be at least partial meritocracies but if the economic setup for the majority is such that they cannot even attempt to be judged on their merit, it breaks down.

And this is finally, why a libertarian approach won't work. As stated in the beginning, private entities will not finance research without guaranteed roi, so the "competitive free-market system" will heavily bias the meaning of "merit" towards "will help to make money", thus devaluing (in the research setting) such developments as the smallpox vaccine, or the internet. Increase public funding to such a degree that research is NOT about desperate scrambling for money and the meritocratic aspects can come to the forefront.