By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: What do professors do?

A lot of my friends in Washington don't really understand what I do every day up here in Boston. Although many of my D.C. friends see my Harvard job as some sort of "gig," actually 90 percent of my life is the typical life of a tenured professor at a research-oriented university, with only the other 10 percent being the D.C. part.

What does that mean that I do?

Well, one thing it means is that I do things like I did yesterday, which was to present a research paper at the Kennedy School's weekly Wednesday faculty lunch, where faculty present research they are working on. The topic of my paper (co-authored with John Friedman, until recently a Ph.D. student in the Harvard economics department and now a post-doc at Berkeley) was a performance target in the English National Health Service, that all patients coming to an emergency room should have their emergency room treatment completed within four hours, and either be sent home or admitted as inpatients.

I am interested in the topic because I am interested in using performance measures to improve government performance, and these efforts have been important in the "New Labour" government in the U.K. over the past decade. The paper examined whether achieving the performance target had produced negative side effects: Was there a reduction in the quality of care? Were some patients, who might have been treated in one hour, kept longer so that attention could be paid to patients who were approaching the four-hour deadline? Were patients admitted unnecessarily into the in-patient wards as the deadline approached? Using data from all 155 hospitals in England and some fairly sophisticated statistical modeling, John and I found that none of these negative side effects of the performance target had actually occurred, despite the conventional wisdom (unsullied by data on the subject) in the British media and among British public administration academics.

What I think non-academics find puzzling is that John and I together spent literally months of work putting together this paper (and that's only so far -- we will still need to deal with revisions in response to comments in the academic publication peer review process). We are paid nothing for this work, other than our regular, and unvarying, academic salaries. We seek to publish the paper in a prestigious academic journal that has a circulation under 1000 -- one that, for the privilege of allowing us to publish with them, allows us to buy reprints of the paper at a discount.

If you don't understand why we do this anyway, then you don't understand what it means to be a professor.

Posted on Nov 29, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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