Friday, 27 June 2014

Academic metrics and market mechanisms: heaven or hell

This post is a draft of my contribution to the 'Independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment' being undertaken by the Higher Education Funding Council of England and Wales (I will think about it over the weekend).

As a mathematician I felt my views were covered in the submission made by Prof David Speigelhalter  that he has disseminated. I did not intend to make any further comments until I read the views of Prof Steve Fuller . Specifically, as a Financial Mathematician I believe I can offer some insights on the approach Prof Fuller puts forward.

Prof Fuller’s argument was interesting to me because he starts by considering the clustering of ‘networks’ that some bibliometrics identify; he refers to the clusters as fiefdoms. Since metrics identify these fiefdoms they are useful, he also implies that work that creates connections between fiefdoms/archipelagos should be highly valued. I agree with this observation, and so my main recommendation would be to develop bibliometrics that asses how research facilitates connections on the basis of complex graph theory (as distinct from crude statistics). As a Financial Mathematician  I am interested in this area because, since the Financial Crisis, the Bank of England has been encouraging mathematicians to start analysing the financial system as a complex network, with little success that is reflected in the general immaturity of the science (though research is emerging).

My concerns with Prof Fuller’s approach begin with this comment
More specifically, academics should be trained to think about their citations as investments under conditions of scarcity — that is, exactly like a capital resource.
and develop with
To be sure, in the end, we will need to admit upfront that the move to citations is a move to integrate a proper conception of markets into the internal dynamics of academic knowledge production.
As a financial mathematician who has worked in markets I have a deep commitment to markets but what I wish to highlight in Prof Fuller’s argument (as disseminated) is that it is not clear what is meant by “a proper conception of markets”.

Since the Financial Crisis there has been increasing interest in what is a “a proper conception of markets” and an emerging (minority) consensus that the current conception is flawed and the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 and subsequent crises of ethics are the consequences of this flawed conception. One line of thought in this emerging consensus is that the ‘good internal’ to markets is not profit maximisation under scarcity, following from Robbins definition, but the distribution of credit in the presence of uncertainty to support social cohesion, closer to Maynard Keynes conception.

I would suggest that Fuller’s focus on citations is analogous to a naive financier's focus on money. I would argue that the focus of HEFCE should be the less tangible concept of ‘knowledge’, just as a good financier is concerned with ‘credit’. I believe this observation is a markets focussed corollary to the comments made by Meera Sabaratnam.

That is as much as I will say in the submission.  There is some context that comes from this response from Brad DeLong on initiatives to change the economics curriculum in the UK.  Prof DeLong states
I think that modern neoclassical economics is in fine shape as long as it is understood as the ideological and substantive legitimating doctrine of the political theory of possessive individualism.
This is really interesting since the term `possessive individualism' was coined by the Canadian political scientist C.B. Macpherson  in a critique of the identification of democracy with markets.

DeLong implies that to challenge mainstream neoclassical economics is to challenge the ideology of possessive individualism.  Central to my work is diminishing the role of "max U" in finance and replacing it with reciprocity in the face of uncertainty, which I believe is challenging the ideology of possessive individualism.

I am becoming obsessed with the relationships between finance, science and democracy.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for your interesting response. We need more people with your expertise and insight in the discussion of metrics.

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