Science Careers has named its first ever person of the year and it is our own Executive Board member, Paula Stephan.
In numerous articles and books, and as a member of scholarly bodies and study commissions examining the situation and prospects of young scientists, Stephan has long expounded the view that the current graduate and postdoctoral training system constitutes, in her words, a “pyramid scheme.” This system, she has repeatedly shown, uses young and aspiring scientists as cheap labor for professors’ grant-funded research and then fails to provide the career opportunities that have been implicitly or explicitly promised.
Even for the accomplished Stephan, 2012 was a year of special accomplishment. It began with the 9 January publication of her illuminating book on the workings of academic research, How Economics Shapes Science. The book uses the “tool bag” of economics to analyze “the relationships between incentives and costs” and to penetrate the financial structure of university-based science. As Science Careers wrote in a 6 January column, the book explains “the motivation and behavior of everyone from august university presidents and professors to powerless and impecunious graduate students and postdocs.”
Stephan succinctly shows why federally funded academic research generally probes “safe” questions, limiting the odds of both conspicuous failures and dramatic breakthroughs. She shows why the demand for low-cost graduate students and even lower-cost postdocs is perpetual, insatiable, and out of proportion with subsequent career opportunities. She even explains why male rats are usually a better bargain than female rats. Her book’s analysis lays bare exactly how and why the pyramid scheme harms the interests and prospects of young scientists struggling to find careers in a glutted labor market.