Monday, June 16, 2014

Taking "job creator" to its logical end

For one thing, state funding begets federal funding: Federal grants from the National Institutes of Health aren't given to schools; they are given to scientists, and if those scientists move, the grant money moves with them. 
Talent moves with these top researchers, too—“like a baseball player will help you win a pennant but they also put fans in the seats,” as Goldman put it. 
Jo Wiederhorn, president and C.E.O. of AMSNY, points to a 2010 study from Tripp Umbach, which estimates that for every $1 of investment, the state sees $7.50 of economic output. 
An example of how that works: In 2012, Weill Cornell Medical College poached Dr. Lewis C. Cantley, a professor at Harvard and Director of the Cancer Center and chief of the Division of Signal Transduction at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Cornell's pitch included its brand-new cancer center, with new labs and new equipment. But Cantley doesn't come alone. He brought a staff of post-docs and lab technicians, fellow researchers. Those are all good-paying jobs, and that staff needs a place to eat lunch, take its dry cleaning, etc.
I should point out here that postdoctoral salaries are not poverty wages by any means, but I strongly disagree with calling them "good-paying jobs". At the very best, they're "temporary appointments that provide a modest income."

Is there any evidence of big PI moves that have actually helped establish or cement a new institution's reputation? I'd like to think so, but I suspect that evidence is thinner than boosters would  suggest.  


  1. It really does infuriate me how flagrantly people conflate poaching jobs with "creating" them. Nine times out of ten, any policy designed to "create" jobs is actually (and very transparently!) a policy designed to move them from another region, state, or nation. These policies are almost always zero-sum by design and negative sum in practice due to transaction costs and corner cutting.

    That star baseball player will put fans in YOUR seats, but the team that he leaves will have approximately the same number of new empty seats.

    1. Yes, but I made lots of money! It doesn't matter if someone else lost because I won.

      When you can't make useful things or doing anything worthwhile, most of the optimistic captalist scenarios go out the window because you're in (useless) zero-sum land - your methods of making money for management/administration (and yes I am cynical that this is about anyone else's well-being or interest) run to getting your workers to work for less or finding ones who will, finding customers that can't go anywhere else when you hose them, and hoping that the people who are funding you don't go away until after you're gone. Sometimes, you can make your work more efficient, and you and your customers and shareholders can all win, but that doesn't seem to happen much lately; if your customers win, that's money you could have had, after all.

      In theory, it's possible that some other baseball team could use your player more effectively than you can to gain more wins or fans than you did. If a player is subtracted from a noncompetitive team and added to one that can compete, then there will probably be more fans overall in the new configuration than the old one - the noncompetitive one won't lose that many, and the competitve one will gain some, and the games in the newly competitive division will garner more fans, probably. It can go the other way as well (Seattle getting Cano?), but it is not necessarily a zero-sum game.

  2. "Those are all good-paying jobs"

    Am I the only one who feels offended at this? I'm surprised they didn't claim excellent job security and benefits too.

  3. IMO, adding these "star" professors does not greatly increase the number of good jobs in science. Occasionally a "star" professor will need some kind of expertise (like running an instrument or tending a lot of mice) and will be willing to pay a step or two above a post-doc. For example, I had a close friend with a huge amount of experience recently go to a recently "poached" large group run by three PI's-that get probably about 4-5 million a year for the university. What was her salary offer? $55,000/yr. This groups still runs on cheap grad student and post-doc labor.

    Years ago I lost my job at a start company and had hoped that there would be possibilities of upward mobility in academic research, once you were in a university. My god was I completely wrong about this. The only way anybody should return to academic science from industry is by accepting some kind of hard-money, reasonably payed staff position. If you return supported on soft money, the chances of you getting out of this are extremely slim.

    Academic Science really is a two tiered system: The poorly paid tier with individuals (like me) who carry out the experiments and the well paid tier (with individuals like my boss/advisor) that administrate this effort. Unless your advisor is a department chair there is little chance that you can move from a soft money position to a hard money one within the university, and that's where the good pay is.

  4. When Berkeley poached Omar Yaghi, they had to cut researcher positions in order to afford the costs of bringing him to Berkeley, which included a very high salary.

    1. And any gain at Berkeley was precisely offset by Michigan's loss. I know. I worked across the hall. From a national perspective, this is zero sum.

  5. TSRI's chem department, which went from obscurity to prominence in < 10 years, is a great example of building a department by M&A rather than growing it organically (sorry....).

  6. In my experience, star faculty
    a) Are totally hooked on off-budget labor, that is postdocs who bring their own money. I recall that when I was looking for my first postdoc I was stunned when I came across a group which had 26 posdocs and 2 grad students. "Very simple", explained my advisor, "all of them have NSF fellowships or sponsored by their nations".
    b) Believe, en masse, that their name on the resume is worth 20-25% pay cut.