Excess seniority as one problem with American science

The current grant opportunities for starting a new independent research career in academia have not only become increasingly unavailable to young scientists and engineers, but are also disastrously risk-averse. At the NIH, the proportion of all grant funds awarded to scientists under the age of 36 fell from 5.6% in 1980 to 1.5% in 2017. One might ask the rhetorical question: How successful would Silicon Valley be if nearly 99% of all investments were awarded to scientists and engineers age 36 years or older, along with a strong bias toward funding only safe, nonrisky projects? Similarly, at the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Laboratories, high-risk, high-reward research and development has been severely limited by extreme volatility in research funding and by very limited discretionary funding at the laboratory level.

That is by Bruce Alberts and Ventakesh Narayanamurti, via Larry Summers.


This is a fine letter, but its phrasing obscures the underlying causes. "The current grant opportunities ... have not only become increasingly unavailable to young scientists and engineers," -- true, but that's because the age at which one can become an independent researcher aiming for grants has been creeping steadily upwards.
Writing down numbers helps: Suppose one gets an undergraduate degree at age 22. Graduate school (in the US) is about 6 years. The time spent as a postdoc is long, driven by the large mismatch between people and jobs; let's say 5 years. That makes the typical "young investigator" 33 years old at the start! The goal of increasing the resources that go to young people will not be achieved by increasing overall funds available, but rather by the more difficult task of making the path to independence much shorter (as in fact used to be the case).

Thanks to Captain Bolsonaro, Brazil is a strong scientific nation.

At least she is not screeching harpy like Hillary.

so it looks like the stem students should
get a way higher adversity score
than non stem students!

hello!,I love your writing so so much! percentage we keep in touch more about your article on AOL? I need a specialist in this area to resolve my problem. Maybe that's you! Having a look forward to peer you.

Why would a high-spirited, intelligent young chap with a scientific bent go in for such an academic career?

In my last academic job I got the impression that people applying for tenure track posts were better credentialed but intellectually duller than their equivalents decades earlier.

Maybe, the long postdoc period is an effect, rather than a cause, of the way scientific research is funded. Why not grant post-doctoral research fellowships to promising young researchers, say based on the innovativeness of their PhD research? Then, those postdocs could pursue whatever topics they found worthwhile rather than needing to fit within a professor's research agenda. Why should we assume that research funding should primarily go to tenure-track faculty given that there is only a peripheral connection between research and classroom teaching?

In many schools, most research institutions, there is little connection between tenure-track faculty and classroom teaching skill.

@BC: There are a handful of programs like this, making postdocs more independent, but they are not widespread. This deserves a longer answer, but the short version is that if funding agencies suddenly gave postdocs funds as independent researchers, the money and space to set up a lab would still have to come from somewhere. Universities would balk, because by construction these are temporary positions and so these costs are not likely to be recovered in the long term, unless the person / research fit well under the umbrella of an established researcher, which gets us back to the present setup.

Sounds like a fine opportunity for the pharma industry to start funding young researchers, instead of relying on a flawed government funding process.

Stop laughing.

Really - because there clearly must be a serious market opportunity to change this situation, if one believes that the market means companies well spend their own money instead of the money of taxpayers.

'This report shows that NIH funding contributed to published research associated with every one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2010–2016. Collectively, this research involved >200,000 years of grant funding totaling more than $100 billion. The analysis shows that >90% of this funding represents basic research related to the biological targets for drug action rather than the drugs themselves. The role of NIH funding thus complements industry research and development, which focuses predominantly on applied research. This work underscores the breath and significance of public investment in the development of new therapeutics and the risk that reduced research funding would slow the pipeline for treating morbid disease.' https://www.pnas.org/content/115/10/2329

Well said, and this pointedly demonstrates just how dishonest Tyler is with constant cherry picking to flatter his market fundamentalist ideology.

Timothy Taylor raised this very point on Friday at Conversable Economist and he provides a fine statutory history of how businesses were nudged into abandoning research to the tax-exempt sector. https://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2019/05/time-for-return-of-large-corporation.html Taylor discusses a recent paper on the changing structure of US innovation: http://papers.nber.org/conf_papers/f119267.pdf
But neither addresses the complex evolution of the tax treatment of corporate R&D which was relatively disadvantaged relative to research expenditures by tax-exempts.

The worst outcome of the long period of the relatively unfavorable tax treatment disadvantage of corporate R&D has been to divert talent from productive roles in society to universities and non-profits that objectively are net losers of social welfare.

Thankfully, President Trump has provided a path towards sanity by signing the 2017 tax reform bill. Beginning in 2020, corporate research will enjoy reasonably favorable treatment: https://www.thetaxadviser.com/newsletters/2019/tcja-effect-research-development-tax-credit-planning.html

In fact the pharmaceutical industry does this quite a lot, by buying startup companies that demonstrate promise.

Doesn't help science when an anti-vaxxer and climate change denier inhabits the Oval Office.

actually after we talked with the donald
he came around on vaccines
hey does this look like measles
on wisconsin!

1 hat tip anon.

Maybe the gov't doesn't have a comperative advantage in financing high risk research?

"How successful would Silicon Valley be if nearly 99% of all investments were awarded to scientists and engineers age 36 years or older, along with a strong bias toward funding only safe, nonrisky projects?"

Why should we believe they wouldn't be as succesful? I sense a slight reasoning error there. The recent studies show that startups founded by 40+ people - who already climbed the tech career ladder - in general perform better.

Indeed, and given that successful projects are likely to be team, rather than individual, efforts these days ..

Kind of a squirrelly idea to be honest, that a 25 year old is going to launch and staff and manage something interesting in a hard field.

It depends on what you mean by "successful projects" Do you want incremental performance improvements, on time, and on budget? Then sure.

Do you want something radically innovative / disruptive? Then not so much.

An interesting counterfactual: what if investment in Silicon Valley had been limited to adult wonders (persons over age 36) rather than boy wonders as as the case? I suspect tech would look far different today. How so? More flying cars rather than just 120 characters, to paraphrase Peter Thiel. Why? Older men (and we are talking about males here) of the era were more infatuated with hardware because hardware was what real men of their era created; software is, well, feminine even if mostly (young) males create it. If I am right (and it's a counterfactual, so who knows), then tech today would be far less reliant on the advertising model to generate revenues and, thus, less reliant on invasion of privacy as a standard practice. So let's not deny the adult wonders their due. Indeed, consider what would happen if medical research grants were awarded only to boy wonders rather than adult wonders as is the case according to this blog post. How many medical nightmares would the boys wonders have produced?

In defense of the boy wonders, I should point out that if the adult wonders had dominated tech, there's a good chance they would have devoted their energies to developing military hardware. Without the advertising model, the government would have been the likely source of revenues. Indeed, as the boy wonders have aged are becoming adult wonders, they are being tempted by government contracts to produce military hardware operated with sophisticated software (AI). In this respect, adult wonders may be riskier for the rest of us than boy wonders (and their social media, computer games, etc.). To emphasize the point, what if John Bolton had been one of the adult wonders in Silicon Valley. Jeepers!

We are constantly told that government is needed to fund public goods, like research generally or perhaps research by young investigators, because the private sector won't provide sufficient resources for such public goods. Yet, here the authors ask, without any sense of irony, why won't government provide more funding the way private-sector Silicon Valley does?

As the authors point out, the US government became a major sponsor of research starting in the mid-20th century, coinciding with the Cold War. Even when Defense Dept funding provided support for general scientific, non-weapons research, technological prowess really was a public good, for the same reason that general defense spending is. We needed a strong science and technology base to defeat the Communists.

A post-Cold War world is different. The same public goods argument for private individuals and firms applies to countries. Why would any given country fund research itself when it can just read about and learn from other countries' research? That's especially the case in a world with more open migration, which the authors also advocate. Why fund research domestically when one can just recruit the best foreign scientists and engineers with the desired know-how once other countries' research reveals what type of know-how is most important? Why not let scientists learn on other countries' dimes? During the Cold War, it was not so easy for Soviet scientists to defect to the US.

Perhaps, it shouldn't be a surprise that the purported decline in US research spending has coincided with the increased resistance, if not outright hostility, towards the idea of American Exceptionalism. If America's place in the world is not truly unique, then why should it's research funding be?

You ramble too much. It is very simple. You want more of something you pay for it. Don't overthink this, econ nerds.

The same question could be asked about the credit risk weighted capital requirements for banks. Where would America (and the Western world) be if regulators had given bank such extraordinary incentives favoring the financing of the safer present over the riskier future?

It would seem to be an opportunity for older researchers with access to capital to identify and mentor younger researchers. Doesn't that frequently happen in Silicone Valley? Older successful tech inventors identify new technologies and become mentors with access to a venture capitalist.

Was the Thomas Edison model a disaster?

If young researchers must prove themselves before they can get funding for their projects the simple solution seems to create a center for research that can attract and mentor young researchers while maintaining access to funding - private and government. A center that encourages young researchers should be able to attract top talent if it exists in the way the authors claim.

Isn't this a wider criticism of the funding process, and age is simply one dimension of how it is a bad process? Funds are chasing better credentialed and less risky projects, for good or for bad?

Also - to what extent is this just carving up the innovation industry and not reflective of underlying innovation rates? Maybe these days really innovative young people go work for Tesla, SpaceX, or Amazon, or Google, just like smart people worked at RAND or Bell Labs?

"The current grant opportunities for starting a new independent research career in academia..."

A bachelor degree is a prerequisite for a new independent research career in academia. What about fixing that? It should be ironic to get a large research grant while struggling to pay debt from the bachelor.

>A bachelor degree is a prerequisite

LOL. Academics require a phd and a post-doc before they'll even talk to you.

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