Saturday, May 12, 2012

The costs and incentives of doing science (Books - How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan)

The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has been trying to lure a top university to create a school of engineering and applied science in NYC.  In fact, he sweetened the deal by offering $100 million, claiming that the investment is worth far more in future start-up businesses and the jobs and products they would create. Is this project really going to spawn the creation of a new silicon valley in NYC or is Mayor Bloomberg overstating the impact of one school?  Paul Stephan's new book How Economics Shapes Science is a thorough, data-rich analysis that can help us consider such questions.

Stephan considers the costs and incentives impinging upon the practice of science internationally, mostly confining her book to research carried out in the U.S. in the public sphere, that is, universities and institutes.  She cites industry as a potential employer of scientists and as a funding source for public institutions, but gives less space to research and development in industry.  I don't know whether this limit evolved because there is more readily accessible data on public research, or because what separates research-specific activities and costs in private business is either too murky or delicate to approach.  Since income is the chief driver of business, everything from the formation of hypotheses to the drawing of conclusions would be impacted by the drive for profit.  I would have liked even more treatment about this potentially messy entanglement.

Stephan's section on how the industrial revolution shifted the emphasis in technological advances from trial and error acquisition of practical knowledge to an epistemological base was enlightening.  Stephan quotes science historian Joel Mokyr:
The mutual co-evolution of practical and theoretical knowledge set off an unprescedented wave of technological advance
Her focus on the influence of public research on industry was corrective of some of my assumptions.
Almost all of the drugs coming out of biotechnology companies originated at universities.  Some of these, such as synthetic insulin, have had a substantial impact on public health.
Put that in your grant proposal and smoke it!  Most of Stephan's book was focused on public culture.  This meant that her scrutiny compared activities guided by more homogeneous objectives, although it includes both basic research carried out for the purpose of increasing our understanding of the world in which we live in and applied research, which seeks to solve some practical problem. It also means that the areas she covers are thoroughly mined.

Ask almost any scientist what led him or her to become a scientist and the answer will be an interest in solving puzzles.  The interest in puzzles persists throughout their career.  It is not only the "hook" that attracts people to science, but it is also a key instrinsic reward for doing science.  "The prize," to quote the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, "is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery."
It is not that scientists don't hope for monetary rewards, which may come in the form of salaries, prizes, royalties, patents, or stock in start-up companies, but science would be the wrong field to enter if one's sole preoccupation was money.  Scientists surveyed by the National Science Foundation considered intellectual challenge and independence more influential.  Recognition, according to Stephan, is a primary motivator both as an end in itself and as the means for acquiring the resources to pursue scientific discovery,
Reputation is built in science by being the first to communicate a finding.... the interest in priority and the intellectual property rights awarded to the scientist who is first are not a new phenomenon but have been an overriding characteristic of science for at least three hundred years.  Newton took extreme measures to establish that he, not Leibniz, was the inventor of the calculus.  Darwin was only convinced to publish On the Origin of Species when he realized that Wallace had reached similar conclusions and would be awarded priority of the discovery if he, Darwin, did not publish first. 
In order to establish priority one must make one's findings public.  Discovery only becomes valuable to a scientist once he gives his findings away, explains Stephan.  Compensation in science is not only based upon the priority of discovery, it is generally divorced from effort, making science an achievement driven culture.  Patents and businesses reward the discoverer, but they also fund the institution employing the scientist.  These provide increased opportunities for earning money in a field which traditionally offers smaller initial and lifetime rewards than law, medicine, industry, or finance. 

Stephan's book is strong on describing the attributes which differentiate the culture of science from, say, industry or politics.  She is well organized.  Each chapter centers on a theme: salaries, research funding, equipment, the job market.  An outline at the outset orients the reader to the exigencies of her topic within the culture of science.  She poses questions: Does the priority of discovery encourage or discourage making findings public?  Do patents slant science toward applied and away from basic research?  Then, she presents the data, and when she can, offers what the data suggest to be the answers and the implications of that toward policy making.

Stephan tells us what she will tell us, tells us, and concludes by telling us what she told us.  A tried-and-true if dry approach. She sometimes makes a stab at easing her reader into a chapter with the mention of an individual scientist:
Biophysicist Lila Gierasch was "wooed by an NMR machine" to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center after she repeatedly had difficulty obtaining funds to purchase a high-field nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine in an environment where her lab would be the only major user.
 Or an anecdote about a familiar topic:
When the price of gas began to increase in the mid-2000s, the demand for hybrid cars increased.  The result was waiting lists of two to three months and customers who paid more than the sticker price for the car.
but this technique does not flow naturally.  Stephan's narrative skills skew toward plainness of diction and clarity of explanation and away from involving storytelling.  Within two sentences we are returned to a sea of salaries and the price of particle colliders.  Granted, this is the subject of the book, but the reportorial approach produced more of a parade of statistics than what engages me about economics, which is an examination of how money moves the players.  Incentive is not just data, it is interpretation of motive.  My interest in these motives would have been furthered by more plumbing of the human elements of the story - who are the players?  Put me there.  If Newton took extreme measures to not be scooped by Leibnitz, I would like to know what that looked like.  If Susan Lindquist's work on the folding of proteins grew into an entrepreneurial enterprise, I would like to know why she, as opposed to some other scientist, accomplished this.  I need more than the fact that she thinks these activities "necessary for her life's work to make a difference," or that she wrote143 papers.  My appetite for character, conflict, and the stuff of story is barely whetted before Stephan has moved on.

The advantages of Stephan's approach are a largely free of jargon and are rigorously data-driven, both qualities I appreciate.  I learned a great deal from How Economics Shapes Science about the field I work in.  The mechanisms of funding and the economic landscape of the job market in the sciences are particularly well characterized - information it would have been useful to have before pursuing a PhD in neuroscience!  Stephan's book will be useful for people in the sciences, to organizations or industries that serve them, or to the media that cover them.  It is informative and very well sourced if not rousing reading. Are future businesses, products, and employment reasonable outcome predictions for the establishment of one school in New York City or is that just lot of Bloombergian hype?  Stephan's new book is a useful resource for making such a determination.


C.B. James said...

At this piont, I'd put my money on Bloomberg. His track record is pretty good, and I know how much the Bay Area has benefited from having Stanford and U.C. Berkeley along with a wide range of other colleges (which the state is currently cutting back on rather than risk raising taxes on people like Mr. Bloomberg) around.

Ted said...

I'd say he doesn't need any more money! Actually, regardless of Bloomberg's claims, which are probably a little inflated, I can't see any down side to developing an institute of higher learning in NYC.