[Oded Goldreich has written a new essay, which he summarizes in the guest post below. Oded looks at the distinction between “primary” and “secondary” accomplishments, that is between doing good stuff and receiving “awards”, where “award” should be taken broadly to mean something that is given after a competition that has no other purpose than choosing a winner. Oded points to the negative effects of having important decisions, e.g. about jobs, funding and promotions, be based on “secondary” rather than “primary” accomplishments, because it pushes researchers to optimize the former, which is not good for anybody. This is a broad problem with “secondary” metrics, e.g. when schools are evaluated based on test scores or police departments based on crime statistics. (I assume we have all watched The Wire.) Oded concludes that we should abolish “awards” whenever possible; I disagree with this conclusion and I will write about it in the comments. L.T.]
The purpose of this post is to call your attention to my essay “On Struggle and Competition in Scientific Fields”, which is available from the web-page www.wisdom.weizmann.ac.il/~oded/on-struggle.html
The current essay is only remotely related to my essay “On the status of intellectual values in TOC”. So I do hope that those who misunderstood and/or disagreed with the prior essay will not hold this against the current one.
The current essay is pivoted at notions such as achievement, importance, and competition. It addresses question such as the following ones. What is the difference between struggling for achievements and competing for success? What is the effect of competitions on a scientific field? What are the specific implications on TOC?
Of course, my issue is not with the semantics of (the colloquial meaning of) the forgoing words, but rather with fundamentally different situations which can be identified by referring to these words.
Loosely speaking, by struggle I mean an inherent conflict between different people who attempt to achieve various goals and positions relative to a given setting. That is, the achievements determine the outcome of the struggle. In contrast, by competitions I mean artificial constructs that are defined on top of the basic setting, while not being inherent to it, and success typically refer to winning these competitions. That is, success is determined by the outcome of the competition.
Of course, once these competitions are introduced, the setting changes; that is, a new setting is constructed in which these competitions are an inherent part. Still, in some cases — most notably in scientific fields, one may articulate in what sense the original (or basic) setting is better that the modified setting (i.e., the setting modified by competitions). These issues as well as related ones are the topic of the current essay.
The core of the essay is Section 2.1, which provides a theoretical framework in which all these notions are discussed. This framework is used in Sections 2.2 and 2.3, which revisit familiar issues such as the evolution of the FOCS/STOC conferences, the effects of awards, and why is excessive competition bad. In particular, I trace several negative social phenomena in TOC to the growing dominance of various competitions in TOC. In Section 3, I discuss the possibility of reversing the course of this evolution and reducing the dominance of competitions in TOC.
Indeed, I have expressed similar opinions regarding the evolution of FOCS/STOC and awards in the past, but I feel that the framework presented in Section 2.1 provides a better articulation of these opinions as well as a wider perspective on them. Actually, my first, initial, and most important goal in writing this essay is to clarify to myself and to other interested readers a few issues that are quite central to our professional life. My hope that I may contribute to a change in hearts, and then to a change in reality, only comes second.