Theory X, Theory Y, and the genesis of red tape in science.

“Suppose you’re running a widget factory. You can measure, very quickly, whether a man [sic] is working effectively or not by the number of widgets he’s making hour-by-hour, or day-by-day, and what you see him doing at the widget machine. But if you’re supervising a scientist, it’s much harder to tell. He might have his feet up on the desk or be looking out the window, but still be incredibly productive at that moment. Or he might appear busy at the blackboard or with pen and paper, but really be thinking about something else. You won’t be able to tell for sure for weeks. You’d better hope he’s self-motivated.” – my father, Robert Hooke (at the dinner table, sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s)[1].

Robert Hooke 1918-2003

Robert Hooke 1918-2003

Congress seems to be taking a Theory X approach to management of science and scientists. Scientists are pushing back. That’s not good for either side, or for the country. Some quiet conversation and resolution might be helpful.

Here’s some background/context, starting with my dad and the “quote” above.

My father was a research mathematician. After getting his Ph.D. from Princeton, he worked by turns as an academic, a civilian federal employee at the Pentagon, and ultimately in the private sector – where he ran the mathematics department of the Westinghouse Research Laboratories for two decades. The discourse quoted above had a practical, homegrown feel. He seemed to be sharing ideas he’d formulated on his own, from experience. But years later, in 1973, as a wet-behind-the-ears federal first-level supervisor, I would be re-introduced to these ideas more formally at a five-day short course. The speaker acquainted us with the groundbreaking work of Douglas McGregor, a professor at the MIT Sloan School. McGregor articulated these ideas in terms of two approaches to management which he termed Theory X and Theory Y. It’s hard to improve on the Wikipedia summary of these two approaches, which is repeated here:

Douglas McGregor 1906-1964

Douglas McGregor 1906-1964

Theory X considers that on the whole, workers dislike their work, and have little inherent motivation to perform well. Therefore, if organizational goals are to be met, ‘Theory X’ managers must rely heavily on detailed rules and instructions, on close monitoring, and on the threat of punishment to gain employee compliance. When practiced, this theory can lead to mistrust, highly restrictive supervision and a punitive atmosphere. The ‘Theory X’ manager believes that all actions should be traced and the responsible individual given a direct reward or a reprimand according to the action’s outcomes. This managerial style is more effective when used to motivate a workforce that is not inherently motivated to perform. It is usually exercised in professions where promotion is infrequent, unlikely or even impossible and where workers perform repetitive tasks. A flaw of this management style is that it limits the employee’s potential and discourages creative thinking.

Theory Y, in contrast, is based on the belief that, given appropriate working conditions, most people perform well. The worker is considered as the most important asset of the company. It is believed that workers can derive satisfaction from their physical and mental work, viewing it as a game or as something to be enjoyed. Workers can take responsibility and can solve problems in a creative way, so that they do not need to be shadowed constantly; workers will commit to objectives in proportion to the satisfaction they get from achieving them. Thus, Theory Y managers consider that to achieve the objectives of the company, they must treat each worker as a mature and responsible individual, and adopt a style of participatory, democratic leadership, based on self-direction and self-control and requiring little external control.

Management theory has of course moved on from these earlier ideas. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to look at the history of policy for science here in the United States and its latest twists and turns through the Theory X/Theory Y prism. The narrative begins with the Constitution. The preamble sets forth government’s purposes:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, drills down further with respect to science:

“Congress shall have the power to… promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…”

Thus the Constitution affirms the importance of science and at the same time assigns to Congress responsibility for fostering it. It’s clear that at the time, patent protection, by itself, was thought to be a sufficient policy measure[2].

At the end of World War II, the nation decided that the patent system wasn’t the only policy incentive needed to foster innovation. Congress increased funding for research and created new funding agencies. The most notable of these was the National Science Foundation. U.S. Public Law 89-507 (1950), establishing NSF, reads:

“to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…”

So far, so good. If anything, feels like Theory Y.

Now fast-forward to 2016. The U.S. House of Representatives has recently proposed (H.R. 3293, Scientific Research in the National Interest Act, 114th Congress, Second Session), in the name of “greater accountability in federal funding for research,” the following language:


The National Science Foundation shall award Federal funding for basic research and education in the sciences through a new research grant or cooperative agreement only if an affirmative determination is made by the Foundation under sub-section (b) and written justification relating thereto is published under subsection (c).

(b) DETERMINATION. A determination referred to in subsection (a) is a justification by the responsible Foundation official as to how the research grant or cooperative agreement promotes the progress of science in the United States, consistent with the Foundation mission as established in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 (42 U.S.C. 1861 et seq.), and further—

       (1) is worthy of Federal funding;

       (2) is consistent with established and widely accepted scientific methods applicable to the field of study of exploration;

       (3) is consistent with the definition of basic research as it applies to the purpose and field of study; and

       (4) is in the national interest, as indicated by having the potential to achieve—

             (A) increased economic competitiveness in the United States;

             (B) advancement of the health and welfare of the American public;

             (C) development of an American STEM workforce, including computer science and information technology sectors, that is globally competitive;

             (D) increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the United States;

             (E) increased partnerships between academia and industry in the United States;

             (F) support for the national defense of the United States; or

             (G) promotion of the progress of science for the United States.

(c) WRITTEN JUSTIFICATION. Public announcement of each award of Federal funding described in subsection (a) shall include a written justification from the responsible Foundation official as to how a grant or cooperative agreement meets the requirements of subsection (b).”

Congress seems to be saying: if national goals are to be met, NSF needs more detailed rules and instructions. Closer monitoring; tracing of all actions. An implied hint of punishment for failure to comply. The legislation has a Theory X feel.

Not surprisingly, given the rancorous nature of the times, there has been pushback. For example, you can find a response from President Obama’s OSTP Director John Holdren here. Much of the pushback has been along party lines.

But in reality, all parties – members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, NSF leaders, and academic researchers – should have a shared interest in walking-back this measure.

Not pushing it back; walking it back. Together.

Here’s why. To start, NSF program managers and academics certainly aren’t willfully and deliberately trying to fund research that won’t promote scientific progress and national benefit. But it’s also true that Congress isn’t proposing these rules simply to make mischief. At least some members have genuine concerns. What’s more, scientists should always see there’s room to improve the allocation of scarce research dollars to the most beneficial purposes. They should want Congress that’s interested and engaged and paying attention to that allocation. But here’s the paramount danger – the reason we have to step away from the confrontation: as noted earlier, the Theory X approach “limits the employee’s (in this case, the scientific community’s) potential and discourages creative thinking.” Innovation is vitally important to the United States and its continuing place in world affairs. The evidence is innovation is fragile – easier to kill than to foster[3]. The longer Congress feels the need to impose more detailed oversight, and the longer scientists continue to do no more than resist, the more likely U.S. science will start on a downward spiral in effectiveness that none of us can risk.

The path forward would seem simple – involving less effort, not more. Scientists, both at NSF and in the university community, instead of getting defensive about the proposed legislation, should develop ways and means to open a more productive dialog with Congress, listening to Congressional concerns and working collaboratively to develop alternatives to this section of H.R. 3293. Congress, for its part, might consider broadening the ways it receives input from scientists and their institutions on these matters. Both sides should favor a conversation addressing shared values and goals – and digging into how and the why innovation is essential to accomplishing the national agenda – rather than getting mired in scientific details. To reemphasize; this conversation will require less effort than fighting. The hard part will be getting the right players to the table; from there, it should be downhill.


A closing vignette. Some years later my father announced in another dinnertime conversation that Westinghouse Research Laboratories had put its scientists on the clock. “You know,” he said, “up until that time, all the scientists put in far more than their nominal forty hours a week. But after the corporate headquarters made them punch in and punch out, their hours – and their productivity – dropped precipitously.” This innovation drop would contribute to the decline that eventually put Westinghouse Electric Corporation out of business.

[1] This isn’t an exact quote, but is pretty close. It certainly captures the spirit of what he was saying one night at the dinner table. An aside: in the language of the time, “man” in such a generic statement could mean “man or woman.” Today we’d say it differently. Women were relatively rare in science back then, but my dad knew several. One who was frequently the subject of his admiration and discussion at our dinner table was Gertrude Mary Cox, a statistician who founded the experimental statistics department at N.C. State in 1940. My father got his first job there in 1941. He was an algebraist at the time; she and others were influential in encouraging him to switch his attention to statistics. Changed his life forever, and by extension my brother’s life (he would get a Cornell Ph.D. in operations research and then go on to a distinguished career at Bell Labs) and mine. In the 1950’s, Gertrude Cox would be instrumental in helping to establish the Research Triangle Institute – the seed that has grown today into North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

[2]Years later, Abraham Lincoln (apparently the only president in our history to apply for and be granted a patent) would have this to say: “The patent system… added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” We’re told he thought the discovery of America was the most important development in world history, followed by the invention of printing and third by patent laws.

[3] The World War II experience provides an extreme but compelling illustration of the importance of motivation in the progress of science. Both the United States and Germany raced to build the atomic bomb. Evidence was that German scientists were every bit as intelligent as their Allied counterparts. However, knowing the use to which the bomb would be put by their leaders, they just didn’t have their hearts in the work.


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5 Responses to Theory X, Theory Y, and the genesis of red tape in science.

  1. Bill:-

    I have a slightly different take on the proposed House legislation. Its direct impact is on the bureaucracy of government science, not directly on science. It holds the bureaucrats responsible for what they fund. Presumably it would clarify the NSF’s previous – long-standing – wishy-washy requirement to describe “Broader Societal Impacts.” As a physical scientist, I would have welcomed something straightforward like this to aim at. Now that I’m a sort-of social scientist I would still find it OK – 4 (A) and (B) would provide marvelous umbrellas. My objection to it is simply that it’s silly and won’t achieve anything except to add a few more bureaucrats to fill out the paperwork.

    Theory X and Y certainly apply here, but you need to consider bureaucrats as the targets, not scientists.

    • Thanks once again, John, for another useful insight. Your second comment came along before I had a chance to respond, and is in fact part of my answer. It’s likely that most of the NSF professional staff identifies more closely and more deeply with the label “scientist” than “bureaucrat.” For that reason, I chose here to lump them together with academics. From the view of Congress, both the NSF program managers at all levels and the larger academic community might be seen as working together. As for “broader impacts,” we know that change from something like a decade ago has received mixed reviews from the science community (this has been the subject of earlier LOTRW posts: More could be done along the lines we’re discussing simply by taking “broader impacts” more seriously.

  2. I should have added that NSF is probably the least bureaucratic of the funding bureaucracies. They use scientists often seconded from their own organizations (usually institutions of higher ed) to determine who is funded. This legislation would have been better directed at DOD, DOE (both of them) and a few others.

    • Just a brief addition to what you say here. The rotator positions at NSF have the advantage of bringing fresh insights into NSF… also introduce a downside, in two respects. The first is a loss in corporate memory. The second is a failure to recognize that the bureaucratic function is itself a discipline. Our equations from science are silent on its function, but it has rules. There’s nothing inherently bad about bureaucracy; just the misapplication of it.

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