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Dollars and Science

Review of How Economics Shapes Science

The New Physician September 2012

Book coverIn How Economic Shapes Science, the economist Paula Stephan offers a well-organized overview of the state of scientific funding that is currently used in the United States today. The book is exceedingly well researched, with more than 100 pages of notes and references. Many of the observations made are startling, and raise important philosophical questions about the role of both business and government in research. As someone integrally involved in biomedical research and currently writing a grant, Stephan's work begs the question of whether grant-writing is a good use of my time, and what my future as a physician scientist may look like.

In her stepwise approach to breaking down the intriguing relationship between science and economics, Stephan discusses the motivation scientists have to perform their jobs. She astutely observes that money is not everything: Publications, prizes and general notoriety among the scientific community serve as tremendous motivators for scientists. However, her data ultimately shows that money does talk.

Stephan discusses the motives for entering the field of research, how research is performed and costs incurred, the difficulty in applying for and receiving grants, the professional structure of research, and the influx of foreign-born scientists into the U.S. research system. But the most interesting is where Stephan lays out the relationship between science and economic growth and examines if the United States is on the correct track.

Currently, most public funding for research in the United States is allotted through a peer-review system. She briefly discusses the merits and difficulties with grants. First, they require an inordinate amount of researchers' time to acquire and maintain funding. One study she cites showed that faculty supported by federal grants spend 42 percent of their time filling out paperwork and attending meetings split nearly evenly between pre-grant and post-grant work.

The current funding system creates risk aversion due to its aim of picking fail-proof projects, and how this has not historically been the case. This benefits older, established scientists as opposed to young researchers. And though there are movements within funding organizations to change this pattern, it is not happening quickly.

Some of the most interesting topics addressed include the question of whether we are achieving efficiency in the distribution of scientific research and development funds – which currently stand at between 0.3 and 0.4 percent of gross domestic product. Stephan doubts that number is high enough for maximum efficiency, and she presents plenty of evidence to show why that is the case.

Of particular interest, she also raises the question of whether or not two-thirds of this investment should be put toward biomedical research as is currently the case. Would greater efficiency not be achieved if the wealth were not spread around among other disciplines? The answer that Stephan seems to arrive at is "yes," with some caveats.

Overall, How Economics Shapes Science delivers a thorough investigation of the relationship between the economy, money and scientific research in the United States. Like any good scientist though, Stephan perhaps raises more questions than she has answers for where to go in the future.

Jack Schweppe DePaolo, and M.D./Ph.D. student at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, is vice president for finance of the American Medical Student Association. Last year, he served as
The New Physician's student editor.

How Economics Shapes Science

by Paula Stephan

  • Harvard University Press
  • 384 pages
  • $45