Nature on science’s perverse financial incentives

Paula Stephan, an econ professor at Georgia State and an NBER research associate has a comment in this week’sNature on perverse financial incentives in science. This includes the perverse incentives that govern the role of postdocs in research:

Consider the financial calculations that encourage universities to hire a series of postdocs rather than staff scientists. Postdocs earn around half to two-thirds of a staff scientist’s salary. They are young, have fresh perspectives and new ideas and are temporary, so can be let go when budgets decline2. But, in reality, postdocs are not cheap: substantial resources — both their own and society’s — have been invested in training them.

If a postdoc doesn’t get a research job, taxpayers do not get a return on their investment. Neither does the postdoc: someone who did not go to graduate school and entered the labour market in 2001 was earning about US$58,000 in 2008; a first-year postdoc who started graduate school in the United States in 2001 was making around $37,000 in 2008 on graduation3. During a three-year postdoc position, a scientist gives up more than $60,000 on average in return for highly uncertain job prospects. And many postdocs will not get a research job. There are few faculty openings, and limited numbers of research positions in government and industry. So even if individual postdocs cost less, from a societal perspective they can be expensive.

And here’s a suggestion many people won’t like, but it would certainly reorganize the financial incentives:

In addition, we should consider ways of making graduate students and postdocs more costly to universities, to discourage their overuse and reflect their social cost.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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