Sinclair Davidson wrote a long post responding to Rohan Pitchford’s ERA piece (by the way, welcome to the blogosphere Rohan. I hope we will see many more posts from you). The argument presented was that Australians were being held to international standards and elite standards at that. I must admit that I chuckled at that notion because it is hardly the case that the ERA was at American elite standards. If that were the case, the list of acceptable outlets for top-tier journal publications in economics would be 10 to 15 rather than 100. The A* list might be as high as 8. Real American or International elite standards are not being remotely encouraged by whatever the ERA was doing.
The alternative standard proposed was that of “activity.”
There is the old joke that the associate dean (research) can’t read but can count. During my stint in that position, I came to appreciate that maxim. People who were publishing were working – even if I didn’t understand it, or even think it was useful, I knew they were busy doing something that somebody somewhere thought was good enough to publish. That may well be a low standard, but in an environment of high asymmetric information that standard is a good place to start.
If you are publishing, then that is good enough. The surprising thing about that notion is where it is coming from. It isn’t (I thought) coming from someone who does not believe that performance should be immune to market pressures (especially labour performance). It isn’t coming from someone who (I thought) believed that government money should be allocated to mere activity. It is coming from someone very different.
The best way to evaluate this issue would surely be to compare the allocation of money (and remember that is what we are talking about here) that would arise if it were privately allocated to Universities rather than publicly allocated. And we know the answer to that. The US provides that example. In the private sphere the market bifurcates the industry. We have top Universities in the US where the standards — as I have already pointed out — vastly exceed anything in the ERA. And we have others that do not emphasise research at all where academics teach more and don’t have research expectations. That is a perfectly legitimate outcome. Finally, we have some Universities that fall in another category. My favourite example is the group of economists at George Mason. They have explicitly turned away from ERA like standards to focus entirely on public engagement; and to great effect. I don’t agree with their views but I am betting Deans and University leadership just love them because they bring in the students.
Surely what your right-wing economist in this country would call for is an allocation process that mimicked this system. And you won’t get it from the ERA as the ERA is an internal and not a market-based system. The ERA is designed to tell the boss (who is paying the workers) what the workers are doing with the ton of time that isn’t teaching or administration. To be sure, the answer could be public engagement but the ERA is coming out of the ARC and so you aren’t going to get that answer there. You need another measure to complement it.
Which brings me to the other thing floating around in the ERA debate and implied in the international standards argument — a lack of encouragement to local research. First, high quality, Australian data and policy driven research does get published in A* journals. My own personal experience points to that with work with Andrew Leigh and also other work on electricity markets — wholly about Australia — being internationally successful according to elite standards. I’m not alone. It is surely legitimate for the Government to ask itself why Australian focussed research isn’t of international interest or standards.
Second, it is not clear that international research and notice and Australian policy interest are substitutes. Examples abound — especially amongst Australian bloggers — to the contrary. Personally, I would have long welcomed academic performance reports emphasising public engagement. Those of us who do it have long been unrewarded for it. In my case, there were times I felt actively punished for it. That is not a good state of affairs. But that isn’t a reason to give up on research performance measurement, it is a reason to get better at public engagement performance measure. In many respects that would be pretty darn easy starting with media mentions, blog hits, Government report mentions etc.
Third, if we aren’t going to have the ERA maybe we need to be more upfront with the numbers. Last time I looked the writers over at Catallaxy were big on the numbers. They want cost-benefit analyses for all manner of government expenditures. So maybe we should do it for public money spent on academics. For each academic, we can list the amount of their pay coming directly from the Government and their teaching load, along-side a link to their research and public engagement reports. Then the public can look at those and work out whether they are getting value for money. Now I actually don’t think that would be a good idea (I don’t think the information at an individual level would be of good use although in some aggregated form — like the ERA — it may be). Also, I’m not a CBA at all costs type of person. Finally, even if I did think it was the way to go, as I don’t receive public money for my salary it wouldn’t be fair for me to be sniping from the hills on this. But I do have a question as to why supposed hard-nosed economists aren’t calling for it?