Public Affairs

An Economist’s View on the Inner Workings of Science

Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who studies science and the scientific workforce, published a book, “How Economics Shapes Science,” in January 2012. Stephan shares her thoughts here on her research, what needs to change in science, and her upcoming speaking engagement at the Biophysical Society’s 57th Annual Meeting.



Q: How did you end up studying the economics of science?

In the late 1970s, an NSF program officer suggested that I, with training in labor economics and econometrics, study whether science is a young person’s game. His rationale was that the median age of the US scientific workforce had been aging and if the popular belief that science is a young person’s game is true, this bodes ill for the United States scientific enterprise. The research showed that exceptional contributions---such as those recognized by the Nobel Prize---are more likely to be made by scientists under the age of 40, especially in theoretical physics. For most other research, the relationship between age and productivity is much more attenuated.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

By far the most rewarding aspect of my work is that it gives me the opportunity to interact with individuals working in a wide variety of disciplines. Believe me, life would be terribly dull if the only people I interacted with professionally were economists! I really enjoy this interdisciplinary nature of the work. My work also provides the opportunity for me to interact with younger people who are just beginning their careers.

Q: What was/is the most surprising finding your research has led you to?

Some of the problems that we face today have been around for more than 40 years and only now, when things have gone from bad to terrible, are scientists and university administrators finally beginning to understand that the current system cannot continue as we know it.

Q: In your latest book, How Economics Shapes Science, you explore the ways scientific research is driven by economics, funding policies, etc. Have you received push back on any of the visions you present in that book?

In the past I have received considerable push back from scientists when I describe what I see as problems in the way research is structured atuniversities in the US. But this time the response has been entirely different. I am surprised and encouraged by just how many scientists have written to me, saying that they share my views and want to explore ways to fix the system, and by how many invitations I have received to speak at national meetings of scientists, such as the Biophysical Society.

Q: You served on a modeling subcommittee for the Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director’s Task Force on the Biomedical Workforce. In your opinion, of the recommendations in that report, which one should NIH tackle first? Why?

I’m going to cheat and give you two answers. First, I think it’s really crucial that the mix of support for graduate students be shifted more towards training grants and fellowships and away from project grant funding that supports students as GRAs. Training grants are arguably superior; they provide incentives for universities to focus on training outcomes and provide the opportunity for students to work with several mentors. Second, I fully support the recommendation that universities share a piece of the cost of faculty research time, rather than offload the funding to NIH and the risk of not having funding (and salary) to faculty. Thus, I strongly support the recommendation that institutions should provide some fraction of salary support for their researchers in order to qualify for NIH funding. It will take a while to implement, given the consequences the recommendation has for individuals and institutions, but it is key to solving some of the problems plaguing the biomedical sciences today.

Q: Based on your research, what advice would you give scientists just starting their careers?

First, be informed! You owe it to yourself to understand how labor markets in science operate and what career opportunities and options are likely to await you after you complete you graduate work. Second, explore alternative possibilities early in your training. Remember that just because your faculty mentor got a tenure track position when he or she was 34, it does not follow that you will. Take an internship during the summer, take a course in the business school, and develop your quantitative skills as well as the “soft” skills that can make you an effective communicator. In today’s economy every young person should be worried about their job prospects, particularly those entering fields that are dependent on public funding, or funding from industry that requires companies to take a long-run view.

Q: If you could change one thing about the scientific enterprise in the US, what would it be?

For over 60 years, scientists have looked to NIH to provide funding for their labs and have staffed these labs with graduate students and postdocs. The system resembles a pyramid with the PI at the top. It also resembles a pyramid scheme that works well as long as the funding system is expanding at a rapid clip. But this becomes increasingly more difficult as the size of the enterprise has grown. Job market problems in the biomedical sciences are not new. As early as the 1970s, a National Research Council committee charged with evaluating training grants concluded that a slower rate of growth in the labor force in these fields was advisable. And the message has been repeated again and again. But scientists (especially those at universities) have been resistant to the message and the system lacks the types of feedbacks that typically would lead to a contraction. So, if I could change one thing, I would dampen the incentives that encourage the system to constantly expand at the expense of young people.

Q: What do you plan to talk about during the session, The Future of Science in America, taking place at the Annual Meeting?

My current plan is to focus on possible solutions to what I see as fundamental problems with the way in which scientific research is organized in universities today. I also plan to talk about the degree to which the United States is allocating the resources it devotes to science efficiently.

Q: What do you look forward to hearing about from the other speakers?

It’s a treat to be on a program with Greg Petsko, Richard Freeman, and Michael Teitelbaum, all of whom have strong opinions about the way in which the scientific enterprise functions in the US. Starting with Greg, I would hope to hear more about what the US can do to encourage scientists to undertake more risky research agendas and, as chair of the National Research Council postdoc committee, on which I also serve, Greg may choose to share some of our thoughts and preliminary recommendations. Richard always has interesting ideas about ways to restructure incentives; he also has unique insights on how the internationalization of science is changing the scientific enterprise. Michael is an expert on US visa policy. He has also contributed a great deal to our understanding of how policy makers, as well as university administrators and industry scions, revel in stating that the US either has a shortage of scientists or will have a shortage of scientists down the road when the facts often do not support the conclusion or prediction.

January 2013 Table of Contents