For Researchers, Risk Is a Vanishing Luxury

The Chronicle of Higher Education — For Researchers, Risk Is a Vanishing Luxury: In her latest book, Roberta Ness, vice president for innovation at the University of Texas School of Public Health, says a basic mission of the American research university is eroding, with predictability prized over boldness at almost every level.

Universities increasingly judge faculty members on not just their research or teaching, but also their ability to pull in dollars. They hire scientists who pay their entire salaries through grants, an employment deal that breeds incrementalism. They use metrics biased toward short-term productivity. To guide their hiring, they use peer evaluations, which, research has shown, are naturally hostile to radical ideas.

“The lack of risk taking and associated conservatism is one of the most dispiriting aspects of modern university life,” said Andrew F. Read, a professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University. “I don’t see too many people in leadership roles worrying about it.”

Something that algorithms offer, or promise to offer, is predictability. One way algorithms may be influencing humans in perceptible, concrete ways is in valuing too highly algorithmic, computational, safely predictive thinking over abstract, associational, riskily speculative thinking.

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