The rise of the temporary scientist

Here is a new and important piece on the economics of science, from Staša MilojevićFilippo Radicchi, and John P. Walsh:

Contemporary science has been characterized by an exponential growth in publications and a rise of team science. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of awarded PhD degrees, which has not been accompanied by a similar expansion in the number of academic positions. In such a competitive environment, an important measure of academic success is the ability to maintain a long active career in science. In this paper, we study workforce trends in three scientific disciplines over half a century. We find dramatic shortening of careers of scientists across all three disciplines. The time over which half of the cohort has left the field has shortened from 35 y in the 1960s to only 5 y in the 2010s. In addition, we find a rapid rise (from 25 to 60% since the 1960s) of a group of scientists who spend their entire career only as supporting authors without having led a publication. Altogether, the fraction of entering researchers who achieve full careers has diminished, while the class of temporary scientists has escalated. We provide an interpretation of our empirical results in terms of a survival model from which we infer potential factors of success in scientific career survivability. Cohort attrition can be successfully modeled by a relatively simple hazard probability function. Although we find statistically significant trends between survivability and an author’s early productivity, neither productivity nor the citation impact of early work or the level of initial collaboration can serve as a reliable predictor of ultimate survivability.

As Raghuveer Parthasarathy argues in his excellent blog post: “…small groups may be innovative, but they are the hardest to sustain given the randomness of scientific funding.”

For the pointer I thank Raghuveer Parthasarathy.


Science has become politics. 99% of all theories are wrong.

Science contradicted Mort's beliefs so it must be wrong.

Wait, are you talking about science or "Science"?

"99% of all theories are wrong."

That's almost as good as this one: "99% of all statistics are wrong."

Ceci n'est pas un pipe.

To some degree, 99% of everything is wrong.

It seems every day a scientific study reverses some scientific "truth."

For decades, people were told not to eat eggs/red meat because dietary cholesterol caused cardio-vascular disease; homosexuality was an emotional/psychological pathology; there were only two sexes; moderate alcohol consumption was harmless; in 1995, the world was destroyed by global warming; . . .

"in 1995, the world was destroyed by global warming;"


Good man!

The career savvy scientists get into the global warming business, where eternal funding is guaranteed.

"No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!"
- President Ronald Reagan

If only grant funding were indeed random! Check out who are the successful NSF applicants in Economics - you'll see a lot of familiar (well connected) names and institutions.

Is this a bad thing from the perspective of scientific progress and innovation? Hasn't much of science always been about chasing down all possible alleys, most of them having dead ends? Otherwise, how would we find out what works and what doesn't? The fact that there are so people who are willing to attempt scientific exploration, even for just a few years, ought to be celebrated.

From a career perspective, I don't know if we need to shed any tears over the inability of PhDs to embark on lifelong scientific careers. As one of those "temporary scientists" myself, there is ample opportunity in the tech industry to absorb such people; and, now and then, one gets to work on projects that make use of previously gained research skills.

Typo: "The fact that there are so people" --> "The fact that there are so many people"

I think I may have skewed the data somewhat, I gave up thoughts of a career in science, and got a job flying boxes in the middle of the night, three years before I finished a PhD.

Classic rent exhaustion going on in academia. So many bright clever people spending years of their lives doing obscure or trivial research that no-one will ever use for that small chance of tenure.

I repeat myself: I'm proud to have talked my daughter out of doing a PhD. It's largely a mug's game.

"...obscure or trivial research that no-one will ever use for that small ..."

I recently attended a social event at the University of California and talked to a researcher who studies seal sh*t. Though there is actually a valid reason for doing such research, that's gotta be a hard sell.

I was curious about what he found in the seal sh*t.

I suspect that fewer science Ph.D.s choose to stay in academia in large part because they have other options, such as working in business. Consider all those quants writing algorithms to better sell you something or to better pick stocks. Whether that's a good thing is debatable, but presumably our host would consider it a good thing.

Decades ago, I worked with one physics PhD who was doing communications software when we worked together, and later went on to do encryption software. Another did data acquisition software, yet another signal processing software. This wasn't particularly unusual where I worked. All three of these examples had long, productive careers. This has been going on a long time.

Based on my limited experience, I think they drop out because they lose the 'tenure tournament' ™©.

It's a single elimination tournament - you can be bumped at any level.

In one case with which I am familiar, because the guy used to work for me debugging C++ code, the man went on to get a PhD in mathematics but couldn't get tenure or a tenure track position, so he ended up as a software developer. The compensation is good but it's hard work.

Those tenured positions are sweet gigs if you can get them. Once tenured, you can do whatever you want, including but not limited to flying all around the planet in pursuit of the perfect taco truck. Or you can do nothing at all - ask Peter Thiel. In the good/bad old days you could even spend your time in relentless pursuit of sex with newly minted 18 year olds. The same activity that would land a high school teacher in the big house for decades is, a year later, a legal game for a prof. Not so much anymore, but still, it's a good gig if you can get it.

There are many reasons, besides curiousity, for people to chase after that elusive prize.

Oh, I forgot to say, my friend is a white male. The balance of male/female scientists in STEM fields must be corrected. There will be caualties ...

Actually, most scientists were part time. They were teachers, physicians, engineers, military - and practicing science on the side, augmented at times with grants. But then the rise of the professional grant writer occurred - and these became grant writers with a side of scientist. They spent the first part of the career doing lab or field work and then progressed into middle management, organizing people, presenting as front men at conferences, and doing grant-related processes to the exclusion of just about all else.

That last path is dying and the organizations that supported and encouraged part time scientists are unused to it now; soft money institutions are experiencing churn and educational paths are dead end. So what to do?

Anecdotal support for your post: a friend of mine, an accomplished, tenured professor of genetics and good guy, a good father and husband, tells me he spends about 40% of his time writing grants and much of the rest in meetings. He didn't seem happy about it. To make it all even worse, he was not happy about the PC climate either. He was dreading writing an evaluation of one of his research assistants. She was doing a terrible job but he was afraid an honest evaluation might trigger some kind of action, legal or bureaucratic or ...

It sounded awful to me.

Maybe the compensation, the whole package, of tenure is a ball and chain.

I'm only surprised that people manage to even get out. I'm stuck with my skillset it's either science in academia or a startup or learn to weld. Basically we've churned out way too many mediocre scientists such as possibly myself and especially too many PhDs. I do not understand how the benefits of the PhD can outweigh the time commitment.

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