Book Review: “How Economics Shapes Science”

With the title, How Economics Shapes Science, there was no way I could pass up Paula Stephan’s book. In short, this is a book that any research scientist or journalist who covers science must read. I’ve lamented the lack of media coverage about how science is funded, and what that means for scientific discovery, but Stephan takes the task head on.

It’s a largely descriptive book and it’s definitely not a polemic. For readers of DrugMonkey, Culture of Science, or this humble little blog, much of the material won’t be brand new (which, in part, reflects the paucity of research on this topic), although there will be data you haven’t seen. While it’s a bit of slow-going in Chapters 2-4, it picks up after that, so stick with it.

Having gushed about it, I do have a minor quibble: I think too much motivation is ascribed to financial rewards and too little to ego. While some scientists are, no doubt, motivated by money, in my experience, ego is the big driver–if not in the way you might think. Most highly-successful scientists are terrified of losing their funding, even fully-paid tenured faculty. If you define part (or much) of your identity as a scientist, then if you lose your funding, you can’t do science. Psychologically, this would be devasting, and you won’t get much emotional support (nobody likes ‘losers’). That isn’t to say that the dream of hitting the humongous biotech patent isn’t a factor, but even then, I think many researchers see it as a way to ensure they’re funded.

That being said, Stephan’s chapter on solutions is interesting, especially the discussion of research centers (p. ; boldface mine):

One way to lessen the coupling between research and training is to encourage the establishment of more research institutes that are decoupled from universities or only loosely coupled. Institutes could employ postdocs, but they would not be in the business of raining PhDs. Abstinence, after all, is the most effective form of birth control! This is common practice in certain areas of physics where, because of the scale of the equipment, national labs play a prominent role. Postdocs go to national labs to work after receiving their degree, but Argonne, Brookhaven, and Fermilab are not PhD mills.

Research institutes have additional characteristics that make them attractive. They can create administrative structures that encourage interdisciplinary research collaboration, minimizing the costs of coordination. They may be able to make more efficient use of equipment. And, if properly funded and endowed, the can discourage the hiring of scientists on soft money. They also have the possibility of creating environments in which staff scientists can find permanent employment with satisfying career outcomes. But buyer beware: institutes can also promote “senioritis,” where research agendas are selected and directed by an aging, and perhaps less flexible, staff who keep young researchers under their thumb.

Working at a research center, I think this is a fair representation of the research center model, although I would add two other points. First, we already have a lot of ‘unofficial’ research centers–they’re known as medical schools which staffed with soft money positions. The problem is that these centers treat each PI as an independent contractor. Typically, there are very few interactions among most of the faculty–this is essentially the ‘homespun’ loom approach. Which brings me to point #2.

Research centers, rather than being organized around investigators, can also have groups that are focused on completing certain tasks, whether they be technical tasks or question-driven ones. At Major Sequencing Center, we have groups of people who not only perform the various tasks involved with going from a DNA sample to a finished genome, we also have people whose job it is to actively research how to do these things better (as well as scientists whose job it is to manage projects and analyze the data from these projects). In a sense, it’s like working at a non-profit biotech company.

These minor quibbles aside, “How Economics Shapes Science” is definitely worth a read.

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