Friday, May 24, 2019

Is this an enlightened use of metrics?

Alternative title: An exciting alternative career for Ph.Ds in condensed matter theory!

There is a fascinating long article in The New York Times Magazine
How Data (and Some Breathtaking Soccer) Brought Liverpool to the Cusp of Glory 
The club is finishing a phenomenal season — thanks in part to an unrivaled reliance on analytics.

This is in the tradition of Moneyball. Most of the data analytics team at Liverpool have physics Ph.Ds. It is led by Ian Graham who completed a Ph.D. on polymer theory at Cambridge.

On the one hand, I loved the article because my son and I are big Liverpool fans. We watch all the games, some in the middle of the night. On the other hand, I was a bit surprised that I liked the article since I am a strong critic of the use of metrics in most contexts, especially in the evaluation of scientists and institutions. However, I came to realise that, in many ways, what Liverpool is doing is not the blind use of metrics but rather using data as just one factor in making decisions.
Here are some of the reasons why this is so different from what now happens in universities.

1. The football manager (Jurgen Klopp, who has played and managed) is making the decisions, not someone who has never played or has had limited success with playing and managing (a board member or owner).

2. The data is just one factor in hiring decisions. For example, Klopp often spends a whole day with a possible new player to see what their personal chemistry is. Furthermore, he has watched them play (the equivalent of actually reading the papers of a scientist?).

3. A single metric (cf. goals scored, h-index, impact factor) is not being used to make a decision on who to recruit. Rather, many metrics are being used, to develop a complete picture. Furthermore, a major emphasis of the Moneyball approach is finding ``diamonds in the rough'', i.e. players who have unseen potential, because their unique gifts are being overlooked (because they are currently undervalued because they score poorly with conventional metrics) or they would be a potent combination with other current plays. The latter was a decision is recruiting Salah; the data suggested he would be a particularly powerful partner to Firmino. On the former, the article discusses in detail the analysis that led to Liverpool recruiting the Ghanian midfield,  Naby Keita.
Keita’s pass completion rate tends to be lower than that of some other elite midfielders. Graham’s figures, however, showed that Keita often tried passes that, if completed, would get the ball to a teammate in a position where he had a better than average chance of scoring. What scouts saw when they watched Keita was a versatile midfielder. What Graham saw on his laptop was a phenomenon. Here was someone continually working to move the ball into more advantageous positions, something even an attentive spectator probably wouldn’t notice unless told to look for it. Beginning in 2016, Graham recommended that Liverpool try to get him.

What might be an analogue of this approach in science?
A person who does not attract a lot of attention but has a record of writing papers that stimulate or are foundational to significant papers of better-known scientists?
A person who does very good science even though they have few resources?
A person who is particularly good at putting together collaborations?

Other suggestions?


  1. An interesting take.
    I was listening to a podcast recently and they made the point of emphasising that the main strength/point of Moneyball is not really finding the best players (you don't need sabermetrics to know you want Babe Ruth on your team), but finding ways to value players and find those undervalued. I think you did a good job of picking this up and trying to make some analogies to science.

    Maybe some of it is also about for your university who is the best fit. For example, the University of PNG economics department probably wants someone who can do research relevant to PNG development (even if it is otherwise middling), rather than the world's tenth best microeconomic theorist.

    Another one might be someone who is a good colleague. Maybe they are not writing their own papers, but they can have very helpful conversations with others, even if they don't end up as an author.

    But I think part of the point is there is no point speculating, someone needs to crunch the numbers. Find out that people with these attributes/actions are correlated with/cause some measure of success for the department/university and other people don't want to hire them.

    I think the analogy is made most difficult by the fact that universities/VCs have unclear objectives (research (commercialisation, Nobels, practical use, beauty, public attention, rankings, etc), money, teaching) and what contributes to that is difficult to determine. While football clubs also care about money, community spirit, beauty etc. I think managers have very clear objectives: win trophies, finish high on the table and it is pretty clear what contributes to that: goals, clean sheets, wins.

  2. One analogue in science might be someone who has graduated from a small group, under the radar, but who has benefited from close interactions with their mentor and the requirement to be self-sufficient. If the signs of quality are there, for example a relatively good output compared to the norm for someone in this position, they might be undervalued compared to a colleague who has been carried along by a large and well-established group.

  3. Someone who was their advisor's first student and who may have thus spent a long time setting up a lab from the ground up would possess special skills relative to someone joining a mature lab in a plug-and-play situation, even though they might have fewer publications.

    We all know the special person who we always learn from talking to and from the special insights we get from discussing our work with them, even if they are not in our field. Such people are very rare but extremely valuable. If, in addition, they are generous with their time and advice, and supportive of others, they are even more important, since they also set the tenor of a department. They tend to be more senior, but wonderful people to hire.

  4. Very thought provoking book.

    The Rise of the Scientist-Bureaucrat
    Survival Guide for Researchers in the 21st Century

    Author: Perez Velazquez, Jose Luis
    Springer . If your library subscribes to springer, this book may be available online. The author was a Professor of Biology at University of Toronto.

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