Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: “How Economics Shapes Science”

As I traveled up and down the East Coast interviewing at graduate schools, the professors interviewing me at each university repeated the same bit of advice on how to succeed in graduate school: “You’ve just got to really, really, love your work.”

While I have no doubt this advice was offered up with the utmost sincerity, my experience thus far has convinced me that succeeding in science requires a bit more than pure passion. It requires luck, and also quite a few expensive resources.

Paula Stephan agrees wholeheartedly in her 2012 book, “How Economics Shapes Science.” This book clearly lays out how money influences every step of the research process—and by extension, every stage of a scientist’s career. Money influences who attends graduate school; who takes a post-doctoral fellowship; who tries and who succeeds in obtaining a tenure-track professorship; and who will have a productive, long term research career.

Stephan is an economist by training, and writes in the Preface that her book is intended for a large audience—including other economists and policy makers, but also scientists. She makes good on her claim by writing in clear, jargon-free language. Presumably for the benefit of the economists and policy makers, she tries hard to paint a realistic picture of lab life across disciplines, from mathematics to biology—and she does rather well.

For the laboratory trained scientist, it is tempting to assume that these chapters describing our every day life will not hold many surprises, but the details of the importance and the distribution of these resources are quite interesting. I was fascinated to learn, for example, that Johns Hopkins University has a core facility that allows their researchers to order any mouse model they need—even one that needs to be made on demand. Scientists at lower tier universities working on similar research questions would have a difficult time competing with labs at Johns Hopkins who take advantage of this service! At the very least, these chapters are worth skimming for the thoughtful sections at the end of each chapter on how public policy should maximize the utility of each resource.

The remainder of the book describes who is performing research in the United States and how the money that funds research is distributed. Stephan returns to several questions in multiple chapters of this book, but I found two particularly interesting.

The first is, should the majority of publically funded research be performed in a university setting? While it is clear Stephan values research universities highly, a number of arguments are made for research to also occur at non-degree granting institutions. The most obvious of these arguments is that university labs graduate far more students each year than the number of available faculty positions. Stephan argues that using tax dollars to train students—particularly in the early years when little time is spent performing research—is inefficient if those students are forced by a scarcity of professorships into careers as high school teachers or technical writers. One can certainly make the counter argument that graduate training prepares students to excel in alternative careers, but it is difficult to determine if this justifies the heavy investment by taxpayers.

A second, and even more central question running through this book is whether we are funding research properly. Here again, there are more questions than answers, but after reading this book I was convinced that our current situation is far from optimal. I was previously of the over-simplistic mindset that scientists should always to lobby for additional research funds. More money should mean more—and higher quality—research.

But Stephan challenges her readers to think about additional funding concerns. In particular, Stephan refers frequently to the doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003. The rapid influx of money led universities into building and hiring trajectories they couldn’t sustain as funding levels flattened out. To prevent these and other unintended consequences from fluctuations in funding, Stephan argues strongly for long-term consistency in research support from year to year. 
These tough questions, and the others raised throughout the book, are particularly meaningful as the United States continues to face a difficult financial situation. As the author points out, a country with less money to spend on research must be even more careful that each dollar is spent optimally. Anyone interested in the future of science in America will find it worth his or her time to read and learn from this book.  

Irene Reynolds Tebbs
5th year, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry