Scientists, risk aversion and university teaching

This morning, I linked to one of the pieces by Richard Felder on the conflicting demands on the University teachers with respect to research and teaching:

… requiring every new engineering professor to be first and foremost a researcher has become standard academic policy in the past several decades, with dramatic effects on every aspect of academia from the makeup of the faculty to the structure and content of courses and curricula. You might presume that there were compelling theoretical or empirical reasons for so many universities to adopt a policy with such profound ramifications, and that there must be equally compelling arguments for maintaining the policy.

You would be wrong. The usual justification for trying to make all professors researchers is the argument that teaching and research are inextricably linked, to an extent that the first cannot be done well in the absence of the second. This argument is a strange one. Its proponents – usually academicians, trained in scientific method and the rules of logical inference – offer it with unbounded conviction, passion, and a total absence of evidence. They argue that only researchers are aware of recent developments in their field, so that courses taught by nonresearchers must be irrelevant or obsolete. They add that nonresearchers whom students rate as good teachers must be merely “entertainers,” providing style without substance. When challenged to produce some evidence for the linkage between research and teaching, they name professors they know who have both admirable research records and teaching awards, which is like claiming that you can only be a world-class organist if you practice medicine in Africa and pointing to Albert Schweitzer to prove it.

In this essay I want to take a closer look at the purported linkage between teaching and academic research, to see how it stands up to the tests of common sense and educational research. I will argue that it stands up to neither.

While I did find Felder’s arguments about the teaching versus research dichotomy persuasive, it still was not clear to me as to why these conflicting demands came up in the first place.

Coincidentally, I am reading Partha Dasgupta‘s Economics: A very short introduction in which I found an economist’s explanation as to why University teachers are expected to be researchers:

The rule of priority is ingenious, in that it elicits public disclosure of new findings by creating a private asset from the very moment a scientist relinquishes exclusive possession of the discovery. In Science, priority is the prize. In the words of the biologist Peter Medawar, it awards moral possession of discoveries to winners, even though no on obtains legal possession of them.

But there are problems with the rule of priority. It places all the risks that are inevitable in R&D firmly on the shoulders of scientists. This can’t be an efficient systems if scientists, like lesser mortals, are risk-averse. It would seem, after all, that in order to encourage entry into Science, scientists should be paid something whether or not they are successful in the contests they choose to enter. It is in this light that Kenneth Arrow’s remark, that ‘the complementarity between teaching and research is, from the point of view of economy, something of a lucky accident’ assumes its full significance. That ‘complementarity’ explains why so many scientists are employed in universities, and it explains why in recent centuries universities have been the place where some of the greatest advance in science have been made. Tenure in university appointments, a much debated feature of employment contracts, is a way society ties its hands not to interfere when a scientist has reasons to follow one research lead rather than another and other people have reasons to disagree with the scientist.

By the way, though I knew about Dasgupta’s book and blogged about it too, it was only a few days back that I finally managed to pick a personal copy for myself; it is a must-read; and, at Rs. 150 (that is how much it cost me), this probably is the cheapest and the best among the many popular books on economics in the market at the moment — don’t miss it.!

3 Responses to “Scientists, risk aversion and university teaching”

  1. kaustubh Says:

    Rs.150- how?where?

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Kaustubh,

    I found the book in one Jawahar Book Centre in Jia Sarai, New Delhi; the book shop is a favourite haunt for many in JNU and for some in IIT-Delhi. The book cost was (according to the sticker on the back cover) Rs. 165/- and I got some discount on the price, I guess; I only paid Rs. 150/-

    Guru

  3. kaustubh Says:

    i searched and it is also available thru flipkart…and luckily they have started accepting payment thru debit card too(indian students dont have credit card)…unluckily my balance was not enough to buy the book(indian students dont have money,too)

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