Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | March 30, 2009

Assessment is the reward for performance?

Nicolas Sarkozy on need to introduce in France a British-style system of audit of research (from theguardianweekly):

Quite frankly, research without assessment poses a problem. Listen, it is appalling, but this would be the first assessment of its kind… in our universities… the first… in 2009… frankly… for a great, modern country like ours… the first time.  Assessment is the reward for performance.

This brings to mind the famous Red Army aphorism:

Проверка — высшая форма доверия.  (“Scrutiny is the highest form of trust”)

Later addition, 1 Apr 09: See a response from French academics: Réponse à la provocation présidentielle du 22 janvier.  English transpaltions of the President’s speech and this response would be much appreciated. 

Meanwhile, a French colleague wrote to me: 

Concerning his [Sarkozy's] statement that we are not evaluated, this is totally false: researchers are evaluated every year, and laboratories every 2 years. Since most university-people are part of a lab, most people are evaluated all the time.

With thanks to David Pierce and Zoe Chatzidakis.

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  1. Do you know the link to the original quote from Sarkozy? The philosopher that fumbles in “The Guardian” apparently understands the word “assessment” in purely material terms and ridicules the idea that was never put forward.

    If the assessment means peer review, as is the norm in many universities/institutions, then it indeed will serve as a reward, in the same way as an external audit of a prosperous company raises its credibility, rank and, ultimately, the revenues…

  2. Here is the beginning of the original article by Dupeyrix in French saved at

    Prononcé le 22 janvier par Nicolas Sarkozy, le fameux discours sur l’innovation et la recherche, qui continue d’alimenter la colère des enseignants-chercheurs, repose sur une idéologie que la crise actuelle devrait pourtant rendre plus que suspecte. Cette idéologie tient en
    deux mots : “évaluation” et “performance”. Je cite notre président : “Franchement, la recherche sans évaluation, ça pose un problème (…). Ecoutez, c’est consternant, mais ce sera la première fois qu’une telle évaluation sera conduite… dans nos universités… la première… 2009… franchement… on est un grand pays moderne… c’est la
    première fois (…). L’évaluation, c’est la récompense de la

  3. As often happens, Dupeyrix fights the ghost invented by him. The explanation of the French word evaluation is une méthode qui permet d’évaluer un résultat et donc de connaître la valeur d’un résultat qui ne peut pas être mesuré. In other words, nobody suggested explicitly counting the number of publications as a yardstick for performance.

    Not that I am a blind supporter of Sarko’s reforms: the devil is long known to be in details, in particular, if it is the bureaucracy that will assess the scientists, then they will most likely resort to some stupid citation/publication indexes. The struggle should be not against the idea of an audit, but rather for the peer review audit as the only meaningful means of Проверка.

  4. Be it as it may, the translation from the French (L’évaluation, c’est la récompense de la
    performance.->Assessment is the reward for performance.) appears to be perfectly OK, so the Russian proverb is spot-on!

  5. I can judge the French system only as an outsider, but I spent sufficient time sitting on PhD and Habilitation panels in French universities and writing various kinds of letters of reference to believe that a proper peer assessment had been always in place.

    Sarkozy wants something distinctly different from peer assessment — my understanding (based on conversations with French colleagues) is that he wants managerialist control over science, not a democratic peer-review based academic self-rule. This system is already in existence in Britain, and it strangulates the science and destroys the universities.

    The natural question arising is “who controls the controllers”? You first remove control functions from academic community and pass it to managers. Since managers are not accountable to the community, there are no checks on their competence, and managers soon become replaced by incompetent managers. EPSRC (a science funding body in Britain) appears to reach the second stage of evolutions — stories told by fellow mathematicians about dealing with EPSRC are simply unbelievable.

  6. I also had a few conversations with my French colleagues about the suggested reform. Those who are not outright blind to the ideas simply because they are “Sarko’s bonapartism” usually concede that there are many sound points in it.

    The problem you mention, the concrete mechanisms for implementation, is of course the core issue. Just one example concerns academic promotions. The current practice is to assemble the list of candidates on the national scale, and then decide (thus allegedly maintaining the uniform standards of excellency). Sarko proposition relegates the decision to the university (apparently, within certain quotas or limitations). Theoretically this looks like reinforcing the academic independence (no more centralized decisions), yet in practice many fear that the local administration will abuse the newly-acquired rights to promote subservient people rather than those with genuine scientific achievements.

    I don’t know the British system at all. In Israel the state budgeting for universities/science is done mostly poorly, but not because of the incompetent managers (this is a consequence of the order of priorities of a current government). On the contrary, the management of grants and other merit-based perks is run by panels of scientists recruited for this service on a rotational basis. Works reasonably well…

  7. The problem is that Sarkozy didn’t say “L’évaluation, c’est la récompense de la performance.”; he says something much more ambiguous: “[J]e vois dans l’évaluation, la récompense de la performance. S’il n’y a pas d’évaluation, il n’y a pas de performance.”

    A normal translation of the first sentence would be: “I see in assessment the reward FOR performance.”. However, it could also be read to mean: “I see in assessment the reward OF performance.”. This makes a lot more sense given the sentence which follows: “If there is no assessment, there is no performance.” (*).

    This also requires interpretation. He could mean that assessment promotes performance, and without assessment as a motivating “stick” there would be no performance. This is already quite bad, but objectionable in a normal kind of way. But my reading of it is even worse: without assessment, there exists (by his definition) no such thing as performance.

    To be fair, one should also quote the sentence which precedes the quote above: “[Cette réforme] est faite pour les
    encourager, pas pour les décourager.” — “[This reform] is made to encourage them [teaching researchers], not to discourage them.”. But this is in stark contrast to sentence (*), which in my opinion rules out the reasonably bad interpretation. Quite possibly, Sarkozy means both that assessment is a prerequisite to performance (in the literal sense) and also, and secondarily, that assessment would encourage researchers.

    [Disclaimer: French is not my first language, so one should take my translations with a grain of salt.]

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