Tuesday, January 11, 2011

has anyone ever done cost/benefit analysis on whether changing government policy is worthwhile?


 Sorry, just a hurried post (and, re-reading it, a dull one) as I'm dog tired. I just had this thought whilst halfway through Toynbee's latest effort. She writes:

The Salmon centre has just lost 80% of its funding from its 48 streams as state funds for the young dry up. Half its staff have gone, losing irreplaceable experience built up over years.
 That irreplaceable experience. Does it ever get accounted for in planning the effects of cuts? Furthermore, does anyone ever account for the time lost to adapting and acclimating to a new legislative system when they plan these hatched jobs or clean sweeps or new guidelines? I don't think they do. Punkmum was a primary school teacher, retired a few years back. She used to dread general elections because the new lot would inevitably "reform" the education system- both were awful at it. As a result, half her career was spent familiarising herself with some new legislative environment, instead of refining her performance under a single one. 

The same goes for hiring and firing people. In the science career path you are always seeing PhDs and postdocs come and go. The technical staff are broadly stable, unless your university enacts one of those sporadic orgies of destruction and contraction that have characterised the last decade. As a result I am very appreciative of the enormous value of the knowledge and expertise a single, experienced human being can carry around with them. When a good researcher moves on your lab suddenly has a hole in it where things don't get done and problems that used to be easily resolved suddenly become monstrous challenges. Furthermore, collaborations which once might have added novelty and power to an experiment- and yet were frequently easily achievable due to the experience of the collaborator- are no longer available or, again, become inordinately challenging to achieve. In contrast, when new staff appear they take time to acclimate to the bureaucratic environment and to establish themselves to the point when their expertise becomes available. This is more than a casual reference to Adam Smith and the division of labour. As an aside I also want to comment that, due to the overly competitive and highly results-driven research environment that has been cultivated in the UK in the last ten or fifteen years there are consdierable obstacles to young researchers engaging in any significant collaborations outside of their core experiments.

So I am very understanding when Toynbee writes about the loss of experienced staff and how an institution  ca be crippled by the loss of a few, key staff (or pretty much all of them, in her case). This is not an anti-reformist post, as with most of my posts I'm calling for decisions to be made rationally and transparently upon the best evidence possible. And that includes costing the relative benefits of any legislative changes against intangible losses such as expertise as well as more tangible ones such as the time taken to train and familiarise new staff or for established staff to adopt new procedures.


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