Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Paula Stephan in Chemistry World

Paula Stephan, who is an expert on the labor economics of science, is in Chemistry World (emphases mine): 
...Chemists have often had an edge over those trained in the biomedical sciences because of the large number of research positions for chemists in industry. But in recent years, industry hires have lagged – in part because of mergers and acquisitions in pharma and in part because of a fragile economy...
What can be done to solve the imbalance? First, graduate programs should be required to tell students the truth about job placements. Second, the incentive to staff labs with graduate students and postdocs must be altered. Raise the ‘wage’ (that will get the attention of PIs); require faculty to develop alternative training tracks for students. In other words, make faculty understand that there is a serious cost to using graduate students and make them pay for part of it out of their research budgets and their time. Third, put more funds into supporting graduate students on fellowships and training grants and fewer funds into supporting students as graduate research assistants. Fourth, create incentives for faculty to staff their labs with permanent help rather than relying on temporary labour. Finally, if need be, lessen the coupling between research and training. While effective training requires a research environment, effective research can be done outside a training environment. If universities don’t have what it takes to exercise self-control, then turn some of the research funds over to institutes that are not in the training business. Abstinence is, after all, the most effective form of birth control.

Paula Stephan is professor of economics at Georgia State University, US, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of the book How Economics Shapes Science.
I think it's the fourth and fifth problems that are problematic for the long-term. How to (de?)institutionalize research (creating permanent staff, moving to research institutes outside of academia) without destroying incentives and creativity? I don't know if I have an answer to that, and I don't know if it's the right question.


  1. Aren't the second and third suggestions contradictory? "Graduate research assistant" = salary comes out of faculty research budget. Fellowships and training grants are more directly from funding agencies. So if she wants more cost to faculty members, she shouldn't be recommending more fellowships and training grants rather than RA positions, no?

  2. I agree with most of these ideas, not sure that this one is quite rights though:

    "Fourth, create incentives for faculty to staff their labs with permanent help rather than relying on temporary labour."

    I would have thought that most faculty with would be happy to have permanent staff in their labs if someone would give them the money to do it. I think my boss would like to have me as a permanent researcher but there's no way he'll ever get the money to do that.

    1. There are permanent research staff. They are called associate and full professors and it's their problem if they want to sit in the office and not in the lab. They also get paid a lot of money. It shouldn't be hard for the institution to create other permanent positions if the will is there.

  3. How about eliminating overhead on grants? When a large system plays a shell game with money it always leads to unintended consequences and difficulty isolating problems that need reform. The whole system of routing gov money through grants to PIs then onward to the Universities in overhead, then back to the grad students as stipends and back to the PIs in lab startup packages, then back away from the grad students and PIS again for tuition (even through they often aren't enrolled in actual classes) or off the health insurance that pays for care at a student health center which is the University IS MESSED UP.
    Maybe if the money flow was more transparent and direct, it would be easier to apportion money for various research staff.

  4. The idea of decoupling research from training isn't new - this was tested in the Soviet block as "academy of sciences" (federation of institutes with no students, though many had kind-of doctoral programmes for staff). The main disadvantages are: lack (or little) staff mobility (which creates rigid relations within the institutes), ease of obtaining tenure (in consequence, it is hard to fire a lazy permanent postdoc).


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20