there is a curious result in behavioural economics, which shows that paying people to do what they like to do, sometimes provides a disincentive for them to do it, and people correspondingly lower their effort to do the task.
The example I recently came across, from the 7 Rules of Behavioural Economics, or some such, was that if you pay people to have their friends for dinner, they entertain less.
But, enough about the decline of intradepartmental socialization…
The reason I thought of this, is that yesterday we congratulated a colleague on a nice result, and another colleague asked some question about “which agency the grant was from”, which lead to a quick chortle, and “no, this was unfunded research”.
Which is true, quite often. In fact one of my mentors, many years ago, told me that he found the grant system quite irritating, because by the time you got the proposal through and had a grant, it wasn’t interesting any more…
There is quite a lot of truth to that.
Now, it is not universal – there are many important large projects which take long term funded efforts, and are fun, mostly, through the years.
But, it is also true, that a lot of the really nice results, especially the little and medium results, come from unfunded research – stuff people do because they can, and it is fun.
Effectively, a lot of this research is subsidised by the more ponderous, bread’n'butter, grant funded research. The people and facilities are still paid for, somehow. And, mostly, the agencies know this and tolerate it.
So, why don’t we do more of it?
Why the pretense?
Well, apart from the need to do large systematic multi-year projects which actually employ most of us most of the time?
Why don’t we just accept that researchers do random fun stuff a lot of the time, as the mood strikes them, and really that is where a lot of the good results come from?
Here I’d bemoan the loss of the Golden Era, when it was ever such, but it wasn’t really, unless you were an independently wealthy English aristocrat in the Enlightenment, or a precocious upper middle class scion at an Ivy during the Gilded Age.
Research ought to be fun.
It works better when the people doing it enjoy it.
The current system is structured to make what ought to be progressive joy into dreary drudgery (ok, I exaggerate).
Worse than that, it, may be producing disincentives for good research and lowering net productivity.