Paula Stephan


On her book How Economics Shapes Science

Cover Interview of April 18, 2012


Science is crucial for economic growth.  Yet our science policy is muddled—on at least four counts.

First, most university research is evaluated through a process of peer review.  Although there are lots of positive attributes to peer review, the current system encourages risk aversion, especially when success rates are low (as they are now) and many of those submitting grants are in soft money positions—meaning that they must either get funding or perish.  To quote the Nobel laureate Roger Kornberg, “If the work that you propose to do isn’t virtually certain of success, then it won’t be funded.”  This is of concern because, while low-risk incremental research yields results, in order to realize substantial gains from research, not everyone should be doing incremental research.  It is essential to encourage some researchers to take up risky research agendas.  The current U.S. system simply does not provide sufficient incentives to do that.

Second, the United States has long been known for its strong academic institutions.  Having the resources to hire and reward highly productive faculty has been key to building these institutions.  This has resulted in considerable salary differences within departments, across fields and across institutions.  But inequality in the salaries paid to faculty working at doctorate-granting institutions has more than doubled in recent years.  The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is not as big as that in the larger U.S. society—but within the academy inequality has grown at almost three times the rate of growth of inequality in the larger society.  There is concern that increasing inequality can hamper the mission of the university.  Strong universities are built by faculty working together to build new programs and curricula and by providing excellence in the classroom. An overemphasis on research productivity when it comes to rewards, with its concomitant increase in income inequality among faculty, can significantly dull incentives to contribute to other objectives of the university.

Third, in the United States, university labs are overwhelmingly staffed by graduate students and postdocs.  This system of staffing has much to recommend it.  Graduate students and postdocs have fresh ideas, they are flexible, and they are temporary.  They are also cheap—partly because of rules imposed by funding agencies, partly because of competition for slots.  But the pyramid system (some would call it a scheme) that has evolved in the United States only works if funding for research continues to grow.  And for a number of years it has not been growing at a sufficiently fast pace (either in the public or private arena) to create research positions for these newly minted scientists.  This means that within the United States there are a considerable number of highly-trained individuals who are waiting for research positions that may never materialize and who have been poorly trained to take jobs in other sectors.

Fourth, approximately two-thirds of all public funds for research at universities in the United States are directed to the life sciences.  This should be a matter of concern, especially in times of flat resources.  Biomedical research has had a great run and done much to contribute to increased life expectancy.  But diminishing returns have likely set in.  New drugs are slower in coming to market and there was less than a stellar increase in U.S. publications associated with the NIH budget doubling.  Moreover, many of the breakthroughs that have contributed to better health outcomes have come from other fields of science—such as the laser and the MRI.  Funds for the physical sciences in the United States (in terms of the percentage of federal research funding) are close to a 35-year low.  Economic theory would suggest that it’s time to put a few more of our resources into the physical sciences and a bit less into the biomedical sciences.