It is a truth universally acknowledged: within academia, research has higher status than teaching. The question is, why?
High status work is generally well paid work, and vice versa. Wages are determined by market forces, so supply and demand is the first place to look for an explanation for the high status of research.
Perhaps research is highly valued because it is in short supply. Scarcity explains the high status accorded to those with truly brilliant, original and creative minds. But scarcity cannot explain why dime-a-dozen mediocre researchers are accorded higher status than excellent teachers.
Moreover, the scarcity of research is, in a sense, artificially created. There are a limited number of people publishing in 'top journals' only because the number of top journals is limited. Research would be about as scarce as blog posts in a world where people self-published their own work.
Even a scarce commodity will have a low price if there is not much demand for it. Academic research is a highly differentiated product. It is typically "curiosity driven" - researchers produce what they choose to research, not what the marketing department thinks will sell well. Often that is a good thing. For example, I think that one reason the Globe and Mail's Economy Lab section (that a number of WCI bloggers contribute to) is so successful is that we write whatever we feel like writing, and this connects better with the public than the same old material editors think will sell.
But what is the market for papers such as "On the Asymptotic Optimality of Empirical Likelihood for Testing Moment Restrictions"? I don't have any information on willingness-to-pay for academic research in general, but as Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association (managing the financial side of the Canadian Journal of Economics (CJE)), and also as Business Editor for Canadian Public Policy (CPP), I had opportunities to observe willingness to pay for particular research articles. JStor makes the entire back catalogue of CPP and CJE available on-line. Students and faculty can access the articles at no charge through university libraries; people outside academica pay an access fee of $5 to $9 per article. As Secretary Treasurer, every quarter I would receive statements listing the articles downloaded, and a small cheque from JStor. Of the hundreds of articles available in the two journals, only a few dozen were ever purchased on-line, suggesting that the general public's willingness to pay for the output of a typical academic researcher is pretty low.
Even within the university, the substance of research - the question studied, the answers obtained, their wider social or policy relevance - is of less import than measurable bibliometric outputs. How many publications? How many pages/co-authors per publication? In which journals? What is the impact factor of those journals?
Some might say this is the best way to measure research productivity. After all, how can we, as outsiders, judge the rigor and relevance of research outside our own specialized discipline? Peer review is the sine qua non, the best and only test of research excellence.
I have some sympathy for this view - although it must be confessed that, sometimes, peers are idiots.
But if the actual substance of much academic research is only of intelligible to a small group of scholars, why is it accorded such high status? Why are taxpayers prepared to fund research intensive universities? Why do undergraduate students choose to attend research intensive universities, even though the "top scholars" may have little contact with undergrads?
I think this is because research output is a signal of ability. To function as a signal, an activity must have two properties. First, it must be easy to observe. Research output, like peacock feathers, is readily measurable. Publications and citations can be counted, journals can be ranked. Second, an effective signal of ability must be easier for a high ability person to produce than a low ability person. For example, jogging is an effective signal of fitness because it's easier for fit people to jog than for out of shape people. (That strange North American habit of talking about exercise? It's all signalling.) In the same way, research is an effective signal of ability because it's easier for a creative person to think of novel research ideas, it's easier for an analytical person to program a new econometric routine, and so on.
Teaching just does not work as a signal in the same way. First, top rate teaching is extraordinarily difficult to measure. Sure teaching can be evaluated using standard metrics such as student evaluations, or by education professionals, who will assess a professor's audibility, organization, and so on. Indeed, these metrics are valuable for identifying poor teachers, and helping individual teachers improve their performance. Yet they do not strike at the heart of the great teaching. Great teaching is about deep understanding, helping students see the world in a different way. Measuring that? Impossible.
Second, I don't know if teaching performance is as highly correlated with intelligence, creativity, and originality as research performance is. Certainly a lot of things that students value in a teacher - being well-organized, conscientious, predictable, approachable, and sympathetic - are not necessarily correlated with raw intelligence scores.
Well-organized and conscientious people are, of course, highly valuable. But it's like dental hygienists and dentists. The average a visit to a dental hygienist produces far greater health benefits than the average visit to a dentist. The dental hygienist removes plaque from your teeth, which reduces the risk of cavities, gum disease, and a whole host of other ailments. A lot of the time, if there's something seriously wrong in your mouth, the hygienist will be able to spot it, even if she doesn't want the responsibility of making an official diagnosis. All the dentist does is look in your mouth and say either "cavity" or "no cavity" - which a lot of the time you knew already anyways.
But if you had the choice to get your check-up (as opposed to your cleaning) done by a hygienist, rather than a dentist, would you? I suspect most people wouldn't, because the dentist has more education, more training, more knowledge - and don't your teeth deserve the best?
There is, of course, another parallel between dental hygiene and teaching - both are female dominated professions. I've made gloomy predictions in the past about the impact of feminization on the future of universities, that once a job become feminized men stop entering it, and it starts being perceived differently.
In that previous blog post I asked: Have universities reached the tipping point? The Drummond Report seems to think so. It wants to create a differentiated university system. Some places will specialize in research, others in teaching. The Drummond Report wants to challenge the culture that places research above teaching, to "Refocus resources and rewards towards teaching in post-secondary institutions."
Good luck with that.