Paula Stephan


On her book How Economics Shapes Science

Cover Interview of April 18, 2012

The wide angle

At least since the days of “knabe” (boy) physics in the 1920s and 1930s, science has been thought to be a young person’s game.  But is that really the case?  Is a physicist really “dead” when once he’s past his 30th year?  Are scientists at their most productive when they are in their twenties and early thirties?

It’s such questions that initially led me to study the productivity of scientists, some 30 years ago, with a long-term coauthor and friend, Sharon Levin.  Our interest in studying the relationship of age and productivity led to our eventually publishing Striking the Mother Lode in 1992.  (And, for the curious, the answer to the question is that exceptional contributions are more likely to be made by younger scientists, yet, one does not have to be extremely young to do great work.)

I quickly learned that one can’t study the productivity of scientists without thinking about what motivates them to do research and how research is produced—what economists think of as the production function for research.  Thus began my interest in how incentives and costs affect the practice of science.

This led me to agree to write an invited piece, “The Economics of Science,” for the Journal of Economic Literature in 1996.  In 2005 I agreed to update it for a handbook on innovation being edited by Brownyn Hall and Nathan Rosenberg.

Fast forward three years to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where, when I was a Wertheim fellow at Harvard University.  Elizabeth Knoll of Harvard University Press asked if I were working on anything that might be of interest.  I sent her a copy of the chapter that I had just completed, not knowing quite what I had gotten myself into.  Now, four years later, I do.

Along the way, my take on the economics of science has been heavily influenced by membership on the Advisory Council of General Medical Sciences of NIH, membership on the advisory board of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, and participation on a number of National Research Council committees, as well as the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research.