Thursday, 30 May 2013

Can Motivation or Incentives Kill Your Research

The greatest enemy for almost every graduate student is procrastination and often we might try to find different reasons to motivate ourselves to work. Perhaps some people might be inclined to use incentives to help motivate themselves or others. Such incentives might include fame, money, publications or even just to graduate. Guess what? There are studies that show incentives doesn't help when it comes to work that relies heavily on creativity.

Dan Pink is an author that writes on business and management. During 2009, he gave a TED talk called "The Puzzle of Motivation", which was very interesting to listen to (I encourage everyone who is reading this to take some time to watch it). The main three points to take away from his talk is as follows:
  1. Rewards/Incentives only helps to boost productivity in "mechanical" work, i.e. work that doesn't involve much thinking
  2. Incentives kills work that requires creativity.
  3. Productivity is boosted only when there are intrinsic incentives - autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Research is a work that requires an enormous amount of creativity. After listening to Dan's talk, I am incline to say that incentives would certainly downgrade the quality of one's research. Therefore, it is very important for researchers, like us, to understand the effect of incentives on our own work. The bottom line is don't ever let any financial or career incentives to drive you to work on a particular field of research.

One example of incentives downgrading research quality is graduate students' research. There are a lot of incentives (or threats) in grad school for a grad students to go into a field that they really are not that interested in. Often, grad students are given only a few choices of problem to work on from their supervisor, which they are not interested in. However, given that they chose their own supervisor at the very first place, they have 2 incentives to drive themselves to work on those problems. Those 2 incentives are - (i) to keep their supervisor happy, and (ii) to graduate. It is likely that students as such will not generate ground-breaking research. I believe this is a problem that the universities or even the students can fix relatively easily.

Another example of how incentives are killing innovation in research is the way government choose to fund research. In the US, government funds heavily on applied research that they interpret it as "useful". As such, such actions have drained many smart minds from fundamental research to applied research. Clearly, a lot of the researchers that goes into applied research see funding as an incentives. If what Dan is claiming is true, then that would mean a lot of those research aren't high quality. Perhaps it is time for government to stop putting policies that would shift research focus. Researchers are smart enough to determine what are the important problem, so stop trying to be smart and determine which areas are "useful".

My conclusion is incentives are likely killing good researches. This is something that needs to be stopped. All of us, including the government, need to step back and rethink the policies are enforced on researchers. Nonetheless, we, as researchers, need to realize that going for the "hot research topics" may very well not help us produce good research.

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