Sunday, February 6, 2011

Audit vs. Accountability

This series of posts is about accountability regimes and their impact on science.  I thought it might be worthwhile at this point to distinguish between audit and accountability.

According to Gaye Tuchman, author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, not all audits involve accountability and not all audits are coercive.  She gives the example of a university classroom and the imposition of a pop quiz by the professor who just wants to know how well the class is understanding the coursework. If the test scores are not included in the final grade, the test would be an audit. If the professor incorporates the scores in the final grade, she would be imposing accountability in connection with the audit.  Tuchman goes on to give other examples of audits that are clearly cases of accountability: an audit by the Internal Revenue Service could have serious consequences for those who have cheated on their tax return, as well as those who have not kept proper records or whose jobs are eminently auditable (a consultant, for example).  All would be held accountable for any errors, oversights, or deliberate omissions and made to pay a penalty.

The comparable audit vs. accountability situation for scientists might entail a cataloging of the number and quality of publications. If the information is used by the scientist's department simply to promote itself, the publication data is just an audit. If, on the other hand, the data are used to gauge whether the scientist should be promoted (or retained), then the information is being used in an accountability sense.  One amusing example Tuchman describes is for the British system of auditing individual scholarship by professors. The scholars are ranked (by a specific system) on a three point scale and given one, two or three stars reflecting the importance of their work.  This star-ranking system prompted sarcasm by some academic observers, e.g., that scholarship is ranked "in terms of national, international, and inter-galactic importance".  Another system (presumably tongue-in-cheek) proposes a system of scientist ranking using a celebrity-type approach: soap opera stars, other TV stars, Hollywood stars, and Oscar-Emmy winners.

But accountability regimes are not always amusing.  Consider instances in which scientists are called to accountability for findings that certain special interest groups dislike.  More on this later......

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