A Different Sort of Scientific Progress: Toward Utility

From a excellent column by Tim Hartford:

Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.

It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.

Another young economist, Ben Olken of Harvard, used a similar randomisation technique to work out whether corruption in Indonesian road-building projects was best fought top-down, using audits, or bottom-up, soliciting comments from local villagers about whether money was being embezzled. One challenge was to work out how much embezzlement was taking place. Olken enlisted engineers to take samples of the road’s structure and to estimate how much it should have cost to build; he compared that estimate with how much spending was claimed in the project’s accounts. The missing funds were a rough guide to the amount embezzled.

In contrast to Duflo’s results, Olken found that the bottom-up monitoring was not effective – it shifted the embezzlement from something the villagers cared about (wages) to something they did not (building materials). The threat of a guaranteed audit – a threat that was later carried out – was much more effective, reducing the estimates of missing funds by a third.

A chapter in The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen is about academia and the tendency toward uselessness, which Veblen explained as a way of signalling that one doesn’t need to work. As a general rule at research universities, useful = low status. A few years ago, I had lunch with an engineering professor. By far the most useful thing to come out of the UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering Department in the last 20 years, he told me, was a circuit analysis program (SPICE). Used everywhere. A big contribution to the field. Who did it? I asked. He didn’t know. That’s how low-status it was — no professor wanted to be closely associated with it.

The curious thing about the two examples that Hartford describes is that they are happening at the same time. Is this a coincidence? Or is there an explanation?

Peter Pronovost’s research on ICU checklists is far more useful than one would expect from a medical school professor; likewise my self-experimentation about everyday problems (e.g., poor sleep) was far more useful than one would expect from a psychology professor. So perhaps there is some sort of larger discipline-spanning force at work.

One Reply to “A Different Sort of Scientific Progress: Toward Utility”

  1. The two examples cited are part of a trend in economics to use field experiments to evaluate policy alternatives in developing countries. These techniques are also used to study more abstract, fundamental questions about economic behavior. The individuals mentioned are both part of the Cambridge, Mass. development economics communities and are stars in the field.

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