Blofeld and friends

Dr. Blofeld & friends

I've taught you to love chickens, to love their flesh, their voice.

~ gratuitous quote from Ernst Stavro Blofeld, genius, if evil and fictitious, scientist.

There are many conceptions and misconceptions about what scientists are like, what they do, and what their station and mission is within society. Drudges, High Priests, liberal elites, alchemists, systematizers of the obvious: these are aspects of the protean stereotype of the scientist. Scientists themselves – with much of the rest of society dissenting – like to point out that they are underpaid. They base this claim on comparisons with the income and wealth of professions with similar (or lower) educational credentials, such as doctors, lawyers, economists, or with (choke) media personalities. When they temper this complaint of relative and fraternal deprivation, some point out that only scientists can get tenure and, arguably, get to enjoy greater freedom to do what they want to do. Intrinsic motivation does rock, and one might argue that scientists should be underpaid, lest the blade of this inner force runs dull. There is, after all, the dreaded overjustification effect, discovered by scientists. If you receive a lot for doing what pleases you, it will stop pleasing you once you infer that you are doing it for the money.

The idea of intrinsic motivation can help explain why scientists return to desk or lab every morning. Another explanation is that scientists, once they have become tenured, are stuck. They are no longer suitable for the job market. Who would hire an individual to do a particular job if that individual has been following her own bliss for 20 years? It is a risky investment. Scientists, like other creative individuals, are difficult to control. Knowing this, tenuring institutions keep salaries down while demanding world-class performance. Scientists become trapped in a gift economy. They pour their blood and sweat into their life’s work, only give it away for a modest, if steady, paycheck. It is hard to explain this to a non-scientist. I once published a paper in the Scientific American, which I thought was a big deal. I told my father, expecting at least an appreciative nod. Instead I got the question: “And how much do you get paid for a publication like that.” My father – may god sanctify his bones (as Kazantzakis's Zorba would say) – thought about payment in terms of piece rates, which “means payment on the basis of the quality of the product” (Dasgupta, 2007, 92). This remark stopped me in my tracks. I have been hyperventilating for 8 years, and today is the day to exorcise this memory. Only belatedly do I recognize the irony that the Scientific American paper was about self-esteem.

Enter Professor Partha Dasgupta. His Economics: a very brief introduction is a masterly précis of the field. I recommend it heartily. Let me summarize what Mr. Dasgupta has to say about Science and Technology as Institutions, which is chapter 5 in his book. I will add little comment, because I think the professor’s analysis is spot on. Here are Mr. Dasgupta’s steps.

[1] He begins by noting that “knowledge is a public good par excellence;” it is non-rivalrous, non-excludable, and durable, which means that one person’s use of a bit of knowledge (e.g., calculus) does not prevent others from using it, that [redundantly] no one can be prevented from using it, and that it does not depreciate with repeated use [The invention of the wheel was a great feat. Reinventing it today would only be hilarious]. By producing knowledge, scientists produce a public good. In game-theoretic terms, they make a personal sacrifice for the benefit of the collective. Their sacrifice is their sweat and the missed opportunities they tolerate (they could play hoops or chase the lucre available to attorneys).

[2] If there’s only sacrifice, scientists have an incentive to either not do science (to the detriment of the collective) or be secretive by not allowing their goods to become public. Why don’t they? As noted above, scientists have paymasters (universities, granting agencies). This raises the question of what payment is fair. A fixed rate won’t do because it encourages free riding. Scientists would have an incentive to slacken. Then, there’s the piece rate. I have already noted that the piece rate is not applied to individual publications. Does it still play role?

[3] Dasgupta puts some stock in the piece rate, but in a broader context. Some scientists are rewarded for discoveries or a body of work. These accomplishments are recognized with pay raises, honorifics from professional societies, or more grant money. Here Dasgupta refines the public good model. Like the wheel, a piece of knowledge needs to be introduced only once; each additional provision is essentially redundant and wasteful (the hand-wringing over replications in psychological science suggests that published results in this field are not what one may call discoveries). Now we have a one-step public goods game. Those willing to make the sacrifice to provide a public good enter into a contest and the winner takes the spoils.

game between scientists

The contest is a game among peers. Each player has a choice between getting busy in the lab or at the desk (move) or being idle (sit). The matrix on the left shows Row player’s payoffs (valuations of what happens; higher numbers are better) in a two-person scientific community. Both Row and Column prefer that someone move to collective sitting. Each prefers moving while the other sits to sitting while the other moves. When both move, valuations can range all over the place. It matters which of the movers makes the score. The winner probably values move/move more highly than move/sit. The loser’s valuation is most uncertain. If the payoff is too low (< 2), moving no longer dominates and may discourage bold activity; this game demands negative coordination, which is hard to attain. If the payoff is too high (> 3), the field is in danger of being awash with redundant work.

[4] Science is a priority game, where being the first pays. To buffer the experience of being suckered, the institution protects the late-discoverers and late-inventors from catastrophe by providing a decent, if underfunded, living. This arrangement keeps scientists motivated to carry on, in hopes of coming in first one day. Most of them never reap the sweet grapes of success, but they soldier on driven by hope and because their “education involves developing a taste for non-pecuniary rewards” (98). Dasgupta approvingly quotes Peter Medawar, who argued that scientists take moral possession of their discoveries (even the minor ones that do not bring stardom). Intrinsic motivation is back in the game.

[5] All this works reasonably well, not just because of intrinsic motivation, but because science is also the collective effort of a community. Dasgupta concludes that “what Europe achieved during the Age of Enlightenment was far more remarkable than a revolution in epistemology, in that no place had managed to do it before. It created institutions that enabled the production, dissemination, and use of knowledge – in effect, the entire knowledge industry – to be transferred from small elites to the public at large, a transfer that so sharpened the analytic-empirical mode of reasoning that it became routine” (99).

Sound Eurocentric? Yes! In a good way.

Oh, and then there is the sociobiological argument that most scientific discoveries (like poetry and music) come from men whose ultimate goal is to get the chicks (see the fictional Dr. Blofeld and his charming companions or Miller, 1999).

Note i. The negative coordination game I outlined above bears some resemblance to the volunteer’s dilemma and the game of chicken. This sort of game requires the kind of strategic thinking that allows people to not choose whatever the other is choosing. I have used these types of game to explore the psychology of entrepreneurs here and there. Scientists are much like entrepreneurs when navigating a highly uncertain environment, which holds few but highly prized (or priced) rewards (see also here). A former provost at my university high-mindedly challenged the faculty to become more entrepreneurial. He did not understand that we already were. What he meant, of course, was that we should bring in more overhead money by whatever means necessary. He lived in a very large and expensive historic house.

Note ii. Some scientists feel they need to reward themselves. It seems to me that it is a signature of egocentrism when they name phenomena after themselves or when they propose ‘laws’ and name them after themselves. I refrain from giving examples.

Dasgupta, P. (2007). Economics: a very short introduction. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.

Miller, G. F. (1999). Sexual selection for cultural displays. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight,& C. Power (Eds.). The evolution of culture (pp. 71-91). Edinburgh U. Press.

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