Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review: How Economics Shapes Science by Paula Stephan

A must read for anyone considering STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) training. Stephan systematically deconstructs the S&E enterprise in the United States, with occasional comparisons to foreign systems for context. Long story short, it's a pyramid scheme. Indentured servitude for growing legions of graduate students, post-docs and non-tenure track scientist, slaving for a shrinking elite of tenured/tenure-track faculty, who in turn slave for funding and recognition. Those unfortunate many on the bottom of the pyramid are rewarded with an abysmal shot at becoming a tenured elite, poor pay, a soft job market outside of academia where they are unprepared to compete and a high likelihood of underemployment if they decide to leave the game.

Chapters 7 (The Market for Scientist and Engineers) and Chapter 8 (The Foreign Born) are particularly sobering. If a prospective graduate student or postdoc does nothing else, they MUST read these two chapters. On graduation day, your average newly minted US-born life sciences doctorate can look forward to a poorly paid no benefits postdoc followed, having their dream of a tenure track position crushed, and having lifetime expected earnings no more than an equivalent with a bachelors degree. Sobering indeed. Given the lack of information available from graduate programs on student outcomes and the sinister complicity of universities, growing discontent among the lower-levels of the pyramid are not a surprise. Academia is powered by the crushed hopes, dreams and souls of grad students and postdocs.

Too boot, there is little hope in reform. Universities are complicit in the system because their whole funding model relies on cheap, increasingly foreign labor. In a cruel twist of fate, the in-sourcing of foreign scientific labor is the driving force behind one of America's few remaining bastions of comparative advantage, the production of knowledge.

How long before an American-born scientist is akin to an American-born textile worker? How long before foreign competition slowly creep up the value chain, eventually displacing the US in dominance, a la electronics and semi-conductors industry?

How can universities, which benefit so handsomely from substituting non-tenure positions for tenured faculty and an underclass of temporary 'trainees' for permanent scientist positions be tasked with remedying the situation? The truth is, they can't and they won't; not without external incentives for which the political will does not exist to create or maintain. Indeed, the current state of affairs is only a problem for those ground down to lubricate the cogs of the machine, not for the taskmasters running the racket. In the refrain of the author, "Where one stands depends on where one sits."

Science, in it's truest sense, is a quest for understanding, for making sense of an apparently senseless and chaotic world. It is the noble pursuit for truth. However, humans, the systems and institutions we invent, are anything but noble or truthful. Science is a business. Scientist are somewhat rational actors that respond to incentives. Before continuing your quest, read this book. You'll never look at science the same way again.

1 comment:

Shawn R. McDonald said...

Great job with the book review. I enjoyed reading it.

If you want to study someone who is a master at book reviews, read any of Hitchens' book reviews in The Atlantic.