More scientists?

By Eric Crampton 25/06/2013 10

I like science. But I’m not convinced that pouring money into producing more scientists is the most effective way of generating the great things that come from science.

Economists typically recommend “keyhole” interventions. If there’s some market failure, intervene at the most direct level to fix it. It’s plausible that basic scientific discoveries – the kind that aren’t really patentable but that can yield all kinds of later commercial applications – are underprovided relative to some ideal. There are then a few policy options:
  • Award prizes for those making worthy discoveries.
    • But, if the basic research is expensive and if research teams have a hard time getting investor funding for prize-seeking, then this may still underprovide discoveries. Prizes are great when you know what achievement you’d like to fund but you don’t know who’s best-placed to provide it.
  • Award grants to research teams likely to provide discoveries.
    • This requires the granting agency to be able to pick winning teams and, in small countries, can yield nasty procedural tradeoffs between nepotism (the awards committee gives money just to their friends or to people doing politically favourable work) and administratively expensive application methods
  • Be really generous with baseline University funding, then revise slowly over time to focus funding towards institutions that produce a lot of discoveries so that Universities sharpen incentives.
    • We’ve moved toward this in New Zealand with PBRF, but the whole process is ridiculously administratively burdensome, the amount of money at stake is pretty small relative to overall University budgets, and because new and important discoveries are pretty rare, the whole thing seems to reward number of journal articles. If one University produced two field medalists, that would get it a couple of PBRF As, but plenty of other places will get plenty of As without field medals. There’s basically a big upperbound truncation problem where truly stellar work – the kind that should wind up getting the really big prizes – is under-rewarded. 
  • Encourage lots of kids to take science degrees. Encourage the Universities to expand their science offerings by paying them extra for kids taking science courses and for degree completion in the sciences as compared to arts or commerce. 
    • Increasing the supply of scientists could reduce the cost of scientists and thereby increase the supply of discoveries from those places that hire scientists. In a small country, you cannot really have much of an effect on equilibrium wages in science as you’ll just induce post-degree out-migration. And to the extent that science grads get hired in applied shops that, while great, largely internalise the benefits of what they’re doing, you’ve not done as much to get the new discoveries.
I expect that optimal policy would involve some combination of the first three mechanisms. Prizes in combination with baseline university research funding would solve some of the problems we’d otherwise have in providing extra rewards for truly top-notch stuff. And grants can help if there are particular things you want done and you think you know who can do it. If those together work to build demand for scientists, then that can automatically start pulling more kids into science when they see rising salaries and better job prospects.
What do we get when we push a lot of kids through general science degrees instead? Andrew Norton at The Gratten Institute has a few numbers for Australia.
The annual Graduate Destination Survey (GDS) of people with recently completed bachelor degrees consistently finds that people with science qualifications have above-average difficulty finding work. The only exception is for people with degrees in the geological sciences.
Three years on from the GDS, the Beyond Graduation Survey shows that the job outlook of science graduates improves with time. After a slow start their employment rate is only slightly below average.
But this is not evidence of strong demand for specific scientific knowledge. Only 57% of science graduates say their qualification is important or a formal requirement for their job. It is the second lowest match between qualification and discipline.

Norton concludes:

Nobody doubts that science and maths skills are important to Australia’s future. In some specialised areas, employers might struggle to find suitable graduates. But no enrolment or employment data suggests that we are headed for general shortages of science and maths graduates.

The science applications boom may turn out to be a higher education bubble waiting to burst. If it does, thousands of intelligent and capable young people may be left with qualifications that hamper their ability to find meaningful and rewarding work.

Note here that the point isn’t that “being employed in a directly relevant profession” is an important measure of a degree’s fitness – in that case, dentistry would be the best degree ever. Rather, it speaks to whether there’s any great shortage. Were there a generalised shortage of scientists, we would expect most graduating scientists to be snapped up by employers desperate for scientists. Instead, if we look at the underlying data, we see that only 63% of those graduating with life sciences degree and 65% of those graduating with a degree in the physical sciences say that their qualification is either a formal requirement or “important” for their job. 24% of those with a life sciences degree and 19% of those graduating in the physical sciences say their degree is not important for their job; the rest say “somewhat important.”

I wonder what the NZ numbers would look like.

The running joke on Big Bang Theory is that scientists make little unless they manage to luck into a good job with Pharma. Bernadette waited tables while doing her PhD. Two young physics faculty members share an apartment; their neighbour, a waitress, hasn’t got a roommate and consequently has more substantial money problems. Another physicist only has any money because his father sends him remittances from India. A university engineering technician doing NASA-level work lives with his Mom. Closer to real life, Noah Smith explained grad school in the bench sciences.

Want more of the good stuff that comes from basic science? Find better ways of funding basic science.

10 Responses to “More scientists?”

  • Interesting post Eric.
    I wonder what proportion of bachelors in science (the graphic) end up doing the research the earlier part of your post talked of? When I hear “we need more scientists” I think what is being said “we need more post-grads with research skills to fill the few vacancies that may be available if we ever get our act together….”
    This then begs the question as the the economic/societal value of the BSc for those who don’t “carry on”?

  • When I was going through university it was quite clear that to be involved in research you needed a PhD or a good masters degree. has it changed since?

    What do BSc graduates tend to do as jobs? I find the “working in the same field” or “working in a relevant field” to be too vague and subjective to give a good understanding. Does this include those who are doing postgraduate? I’m guessing some of it will include those who become science teachers.

    When it comes to technician work, my impression from local employers is that many of them prefer one our our Applied Science degree graduates over a BSc because we specifically train them to technician roles.

  • “Award prizes for those making worthy discoveries”
    As you have indicated this is something which occurs after the fact. The question is what is the best way to get as many researchers as possible to making these discoveries?

    “Encourage lots of kids to take science degrees. Encourage the Universities to expand their science offerings by paying them extra for kids taking science courses and for degree completion in the sciences as compared to arts or commerce.”

    I don’t quite follow this reasoning. If we appear to not be employing science graduates then why would we produce more?
    The more scientists we have the more competitions for grants and funding.

    Perhaps science could follow medicine and engineering and restrict places after the first year? (I bet that would have the bean counters grinding their teeth).

    “Be really generous with baseline university funding”

    Yes, yes, yes

    • Prizes can be a good way of getting lots of researchers working on a discovery, so long as it either doesn’t take much start-up capital or the researchers have access to other funding.

      I don’t follow the reasoning on “encourage lots of kids to take science degrees” either, but it’s current NZ policy!

  • You mention discoveries and refer to “basic scientific discoveries – the kind that aren’t really patentable but that can yield all kinds of later commercial applications”. That is a whole can of worms that I will not touch. However, you also mention PBRF. For reasons that have not been explained TEC has disallowed many (all?) patents as part of EPs in the latest PBRF round. To raise the level on confusion this ‘policy’ appeared to differ from panel to panel. Go figure.

  • Why do you think prizes are a good idea?

    In my experience (i) prizes are not what motivates scientists, (ii) luck is such a strong element in the sucess of any project you might as well run a lottery. Come to think of it, FoRST did that for close on 20 years and apparently it did not work very well.

  • RodW,

    I think it is a gross generalisation to say that scientists are not motivated by prizes. I would like to draw a comparison with knighthoods: some people would pull up their noses and/or run a mile while others almost bent over backwards to ‘collect’ one.
    The one thing that prizes and knighthoods have in common is that they raise the (public) profile of the person, his/her work (and of the team, of course), and the profession in general. In other words, it can be very good PR. As you know, scientists do appear on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List (or the New Zealand Honours Lists rather) each year.

  • Hi Frederick

    I agree with everything you say, but in my experience, prizes are not a motivating factor for most scientists, and certainly not in their choice of project.