When science is broken or some considerations on quantitative management in science as in art

When science is broken or some considerations on quantitative management in science as in art

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In this post, we would like to react to the article “Science Is Broken”, published on November 7, 2017. On the one hand, this article echoes our observation of a science in crisis, by giving it flesh. Siddhartha Roy and Marc A. Edwards describe the rather dramatic state of academic research following the development of quantitative management. On the other hand, it raises a question that we find quite fundamental about the capacity of this system to produce novelty. This post sheds light on this article from both a historical depth and an art-science perspective.

1 | About quantitative management

Quantitative management refers to this type of management that seeks to quantify as much as possible the activity of employees in order to optimize their production. This way of doing things developed in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century for the management of workers. It’s Taylorism. She took over management at Ford in the 1950s. Then it spread to Europe in the 1970s. The prime contractor for quantitative management is American. His name is Robert Mc Namara.
Turns out Robert Mc Namara wasn’t just Ford’s president. He was also Secretary of Defense of the United States from 1961 to 1968 (under the presidencies of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson). As such, he is among the two or three most senior officials responsible for the US’ progressive involvement in the Vietnam War. You’d think it had nothing to do with it, and you’d be wrong. There is a direct link between Ford’s quantitative management and the human, military and political fiasco of the Vietnam War.

This link was highlighted by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick in their documentary “The Vietnam War”, released in 2017. In particular, there is a passage in this report that is incredibly significant to fuel the debate on the value of quantitative management. This passage is located at 18’10” of episode n°2. At this moment, the directors interview Robert Rehault, one of the American military commanders of the time. Robert Rehault says, “Secretary Mc Namara would make charts to see if you were losing or winning. So he incorporated data like the number of weapons recovered, the number of Viet Cong killed… statistical data. He asked Special Operations Officer Edward Lansdale to come and look at these numbers. Lansdale came and said, “Something is missing: the feeling of the South Vietnamese people. ». So Robert Rehault adds: “We couldn’t reduce that to statistics.”
It is the same fiasco that is happening before our eyes in the field of scientific research. Just as war cannot be reduced to numbers, research cannot be reduced to numbers. As Siddhartha Roy and Marc A. Edwards show perfectly, there is also: the quality of research, the originality of thought, the depth of reflection, the audacity of vision, the researcher’s ethics… Everything that is qualitative, and therefore will continue for a long time to escape the scales of measurement, and other H indices. Everything that makes you lose in depth, while the numbers give the appearance of winning.

2 | How is art concerned with quantitative management?

In 1969, the École des beaux-arts de Montréal was incorporated into the Faculty of Arts under the official banner of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). In doing so, the arts gained academic discipline status and legitimacy. In 1977, the Master of Visual Arts program was created at UQAM, helping to professionalize the discipline. Almost twenty years later, in 1994, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec was created. The legitimization and professionalization of art, slowly and – one guesses it – laboriously acquired over the years was necessary to its development and, by extension, to that of culture in Quebec. This example is that of French-speaking Quebec in Montreal, but these stages are transferable elsewhere in the world, at different moments in history: much earlier in Europe, a little later elsewhere.

This legitimation and professionalization are not without consequences. If art gains research field status and access to public money – through the award of a master’s degree on the one hand, then through the granting of research-creation funding on the other – it eventually engages in accountability processes thereafter. Having now a role to play in the economic sphere, and a voice in the socio-political space, art is taken seriously: it is no longer just a hobby. But he pays with his freedom for this gain in social credit.
An art professor who now teaches at the graduate level must seek research grants in order to contribute to the enrichment of the university and to extend the influence of his department of studies. Not only must he do so, but he will always be encouraged to do more. That is to say, increase the pace and the numbers, and thus enter his activities as a professor-researcher in the quantifiable grid boxes. Students will often find themselves in sub-contractor roles, improving the efficiency of the university funding machine.

Similarly, a professional artist will see the affirmation of his status reinforced by the granting of grants: more grants received = more impact for the artist and the influence of the discipline = the greater the possibility of receiving new and more generous ones. It is the quantity that calls, justifies and authorizes the quantity. Let us be clear, this does not detract from the quality of the practice and the works funded. This logic nevertheless demonstrates the active reality of quantitative management in the background, coupled – fortunately – with qualitative considerations. We can, however, raise our eyebrows when for-profit organizations win call for proposals competitions open to independent artists. Could it be that these companies are better able to generate figures that will make managers’ eyes shine? To what extent is this potential capacity an advantage?

Art presenters – artist-run centres, events and festivals – share this same reality in terms of the progress of funding based on performance criteria. In addition, organizations are required to regularly provide statistics to the various arts councils on virtually every conceivable aspect. Going: the general attendance of an event by the % of tourists from outside the city who were part of it of Canadian versus international tourists of the annual number of activities and their subdivisions (broadcasting, production, conference, publication, young public, first peoples, etc.); the number of Quebec, Canadian or international artists broadcast, emerging or established the number of “performances” for the distribution of works in a festival, exhibition, or any other context ticketing for any paid activity – to name only the main statistical categories that are not always clearly defined. Everything, from an organization’s activities, is quantified. From these data are then derived ratings and “portraits”, from which recommendations are formulated.

The more generous the figures and the greater the annual increase in the statistical curve, the better the organization will be rated on the performance scale compared to other organizations in the same disciplinary environment and the more likely it is that its funding will increase. This reality has been reinforced in recent years by new criteria of excellence for arts councils. On the other hand, an organization that has difficulty surviving financially and, for this very reason, creates a deficit, will often be cut off from some of its already inadequate funding.This does not necessarily mean that it is mismanagement: a deficit may be the result of a combination of things, some of which are out of control. In all cases, the strongest will be rewarded and strengthened and the weakest punished and weakened.

Is it not the basis of savage capitalism that the law of the strongest? Isn’t quantitative management a way to put this jungle in order? Make it “clean” while justifying it? It is also about bringing culture into an economic system where it becomes a product. Talking about “cultural products” has become quite common today. Once again, this place in socio-economic ecology – which, from a certain point of view, values it – is being devalued on the other hand.

For many – professor-researchers, artists, presenters – this is as counter-intuitive as it is counter-productive. In some respects, these cross realities result in a variable compromise of freedom:

Freedom of content.

From a very concrete and pragmatic point of view, the guidelines for applications for grants and subsidies to which they must respond often oblige certain decisions to be taken and projects to be guided differently solely for the purposes of eligibility of the programmes in question. In the background, we are playing with policies that sometimes remain opaque. Whether they focus on digital, cultural diversity, first peoples, content for young audiences, etc., these policies generally correspond to specific budgetary envelopes and stem from orientations whose interests are not necessarily those of artists.

Freedom of time.

Time spent on administrative paperwork is not time spent on creation or research. On the contrary, we are entering a sterile time, consisting in feeding and justifying the administrative apparatus. The increase in administrative time for a professor-researcher means less time for further research and expertise; for an artist, it means a reduction in creative time; for an organization, less time for the design and implementation of dissemination activities. Unlike the Taylorist principle, we are in a logic of time displacement rather than division. However, this remains a temporal distortion that is not without consequences.

Freedom to fail.

Lacking time to develop content that, moreover, must conform and deform under a quantity of eligibility criteria, it is ultimately a freedom to fail that is removed from the equation. But isn’t the right to make mistakes fundamental to research and creation? Isn’t the repentance of a painting or a digital modelling object, which the artist chooses to leave visible, part of the work? Doesn’t the scientific experiment proceed by trial and error? Isn’t it error and even failure that define what constitutes success? The freedom to fail implies a malleability essential to the manipulation of ideas, to the ideation of forms, and to the materialization of ideas and concepts into works. Without this risk, a whole range of possibilities remain unexplored. But risk taking is now calculated: quantified.

The current situation of quantitative management in art is not alarming in itself. Of course statistical compilation can be cumbersome and tedious, and it can be frustrating to have to sacrifice the time from creation to administration, but it remains humanly feasible. So far, so good. But imagine the day when artistic knowledge will become quantifiable? And where the infra-verbal counter-knowledge of the works will be negligible because it cannot be quantified?

If the administrative process of grided words and figures in the field of art is one of artistic thought district, it is also a control tool. We are not immune to administrative dystopia.

3 | How is quantitative management a problem for novelty production?

Quantitative management is not insignificant from a philosophical and political point of view, as we know. The extent to which it is deleterious from the point of view of novelty production is probably less measured. We would like to illustrate this in two ways: the relationship to time and curiosity.

A) The relationship to time

Quantitative management comes from the production economy. It is based on a very particular conception of time which has meaning only within this economy: the time of perfection.

The time of perfection is the time necessary to accomplish a gesture that is repeated many times, in the service of something that we know in advance what it will be. This time has the property of being both impersonal and divisible at will. James or Peter can do the same job, whatever. Similarly Jacques can start turning a bolt and Pierre finish the job, it doesn’t matter. This is the foundation of Taylorism.

In an innovation economy, the dominant time is the time of gestation: the time needed for something to emerge, in a way that has yet to be invented, from which we still have to learn what it is. It is basically a learning time. It is both personalized and indivisible.

The pregnancy of a child lasts nine months for a woman. That’s the way it is. We can’t go any faster. It is vain, the accounting logic which would consist in replacing this woman by nine other women who would each carry the child during only one month. On an innovative project, time is not divided by multiplying human resources. This is the first fundamental error of quantitative management.

B) Curiosity

As we saw in the first post (see “A clear, smooth mirror”: on the topic of the efficiency/inefficiency of science), the first stage of the novelty production process is an observational test. It is a question of finding a seed of innovation in reality. The challenge of this stage is to reconcile two incompatible things: obsession and curiosity.

Discovering in science (like producing a work, in art, or innovating, in industry), is not something you do as a dilettante, by chance, without realizing it. You have to want it. You have to be obsessed. But that is not enough. To pass the first test of the novelty production process, the scientist must find a seed: a detail without obvious value, without immediately shareable interest. In short, a detail without nobility. The scientist must therefore look elsewhere than where everyone looks. He has to watch what others don’t watch. He must find beauty in what is unanimously considered ugly. It is precisely curiosity that allows this.

The scientist thus experiences tension from the very beginning of his quest for a discovery. Obsession and curiosity are two very different ways of paying attention. Obsession is paying attention to one thing. Curiosity means paying attention to everything. It navigates between two antagonistic poles.

However, this tension only becomes fruitful if the two antagonistic poles are equally strong. Anything that relieves tension for the exclusive benefit of one of the two poles annihilates the scientist’s capacity for discovery. In particular, anything that promotes obsession over curiosity is deleterious. This is precisely what quantitative management does through the various figures: number of publications, citation index… This is the second fundamental error of quantitative management.

4 | Conclusion

“I don’t know what I seem to be in the eyes of the world, Newton wondered, but to me he seems to have been just a little boy who would have played on the shore, entertained myself by occasionally discovering a smoother pebble or a shell more beautiful than usual, while the great ocean of truth lay inviolate before me. The image is beautiful and undoubtedly, many people have taken it for that: a beautiful image. It turns out that this metaphor captures the essence of discovery: the spirit of childhood, the shore, the entertainment, the worthless object that suddenly catches the eye. Every word Newton says is important. He wants us to act for him.

The quantitative pressure to which scientists are subjected is not only excessive, it determines a very particular relationship to the world. A relationship to the world where daydreaming has become second. In any case, those who remain in this system no longer have time to walk along the shore. They have lost that taste since one funding agency had to be asked to bend over to pick up a smoother pebble than the others.

Miguel Aubouy and Nathalie Bachand

Photo by Camille Kmile

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator

23 January 2018 | Back

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