Perverse Incentives? How Economics (Mis-)shaped Academic Science

By Ken Chiacchia, Senior Science Writer, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center

July 12, 2017

The unintended consequences of how we fund academic research—in the U.S. and elsewhere—are strangling innovation, putting universities into debt and creating numerous PhD graduates and postdoctoral fellows who will not be able to get jobs in their chosen fields, according to economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University.

The good news, Stephan said at the opening plenary session of the PEARC17 conference in New Orleans on July 11, is that researchers probably needn’t go back to the politicians to ask for more money. The bad news: the current system is so ingrained it’s hard to be optimistic.

“I don’t think it would take more funding to [encourage] more risk,” she said, but “unless we change the incentives in the system we’re going to continue to overbuild and over train.”

Stephan identified three major effects of the perverse incentives governing academic research: over-training, risk aversion and over-building of physical infrastructure. All three are problems in their own right but also feed back to make the situation worse.

“Economics is about incentives and cost,” Stephan explained, and both are problematic in most national funding systems. She particularly examined that of the U.S.

The Inaugural Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC) conference—with the theme Sustainability, Success and Impact—stresses key objectives for those who manage, develop and use advanced research computing throughout the U.S. and the world. Organizations supporting this new HPC conference include the Advancing Research Computing on Campuses: Best Practices Workshop (ARCC), the Extreme Science and Engineering Development Environment (XSEDE), the Science Gateways Community Institute, the Campus Research Computing (CaRC) Consortium, the Advanced CyberInfrastructure Research and Education Facilitators (ACI-REF) consortium, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Blue Waters project, ESnet, Open Science Grid, Compute Canada, the EGI Foundation, the Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation (CASC) and Internet2.

Over-training: A Plague of PhDs

Increasingly, Stephan argued, universities are following a “high-end shopping mall” model in which they “lease” space to researchers—the “stores.” Physical building, particularly during the funding increases of the 1990s, became a priority as universities vied to attract top-performing (read: highly funded) research faculty. One down side to this model, though, is that individual principal investigators took on so much of the risk. With about 95 percent of research faculty paying their own salaries through soft money, funding has become existential and devours increasing amounts of the average lab head’s time: One study estimated that PIs spend 42% of their professional time on grant administration and writing.

“This raises the issue of how you’re going to staff your lab,” Stephan said. While few researchers make a conscious decision to bias hiring toward some types of research workers, the economic pressures often give little choice.

The issue is stark in the decision of whether to employ graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or staff scientists to conduct lab research. Nationally, graduate students average a stipend of about $26,000 annually; in addition, they represent approximately an additional $16,000 or more for tuition and other student costs. Their hourly “pay rate,” then, can be between $19.50 and $27.50.

Postdoctoral fellows are paid more. But they also have no tuition costs and at most universities have few additional benefits. Assuming a university follows the NIH benchmark of $43,692 for a first-year postdoc, their hourly rate comes to around $17 to $18, depending on the field.

Staff scientists start at about $60,000 to $75,000, coming out to an hourly rate of about $30.00. But that doesn’t reflect their full cost, which includes much more extensive benefits than students or postdocs.

Given this incentive structure, Stephan explained, it isn’t hard to understand the relative scarcity of staff scientists. Her own study found that at least 72 percent of academic research papers had postdocs or grad students as their first author. In the NSF’s annual survey, life science PhD graduates with definite job commitments have fallen from a peak of 70% in 1994 to 58% in 2014—and most of those are going to postdoc positions, not permanent jobs.

With the scarcity of permanent positions for these postdocs to go to next, “academe has become the alternate career track” for PhDs, particularly in physics and the physical and life sciences, she said.

“Training [has become] less about the future supply and more about getting research and teaching done now,” Stephan said.

Aversion to Risk

Along with the oversupply of PhDs, the funding structure has created an atmosphere in which risk-taking is discouraged in the funding process. In an influential Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA paper, biomedical giants Alberts, Kirscher, Tilghman and Varmus criticized biomedical research funding as overly risk averse. Researchers have perceived a similar problem in the physical sciences: Even DARPA, which once self-identified as funding risky projects, has been criticized for being over-cautious.

At the stage of grant application reviews, the common requirement for preliminary data among many reviewers tilts the field against high-risk projects. So does the use of bibliometric measures of author impact. The short-term nature of the funding cycle also discourages novelty: “It’s hard to recover from failure in three years,” Stephan said. And since the success rate for grant continuations is higher than that for new grants, the system encourages researchers to “stay in their lanes.”

“The stress on ‘translational’ outcomes” that provide immediate practical applications “also discourages risk,” she added.

Another study showed that highly novel papers tend to show pronounced payoffs at 13 years after publication but little at three years. Non-novel papers, on the other hand, pay off better at three-year cycles—but don’t improve over time.

If You Build It, They Will Not Necessarily Come

Overbuilding—the construction of unneeded university brick and mortar—came with the NIH budget doubling in the late 1990s. Universities, assuming continued growth, embarked on a “building binge” to attract top grant-attracting faculty. They borrowed to do so, partly because interest payments for debt service can be included in calculating indirect costs charged against those grants—and thus it would, presumably, “pay for itself.”

From 1988 to 2011, biomedical research floor space at the average university increased from 40,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet.

When funding declined in real dollars, unrecoverable debt and even facility mothballing followed. The annual average university debt service grew from $3.5 million in 2003 to $6.9 million in 2008. It created an economic drag on many research universities that will be hard to escape.

“All disciplines will pay for this, not just the biomedical sciences,” Stephan said.

The Way Out?

The irony, of course, is that the primary justification for government-funded research is to take risks that industry can’t.

For economists, the case for academe starts with a concept called “market failure,” Stephan explained. It’s the term used to describe the way most firms avoid overly risky projects; the difficulty of capturing financial benefits from fundamental discovery is a particular disincentive to pursue that which does not pay off in the near term.

“But the risky stuff shifts knowledge frontiers, eventually contributing to economic growth,” she said.

Excellence is not the same thing as risk-taking, Stephan took pains to add. Not all excellent research takes big risk; not all risky research is of high quality.

“I think as a country we need a portfolio,” she said. “It does not mean that there is not a substantial role for what we call ‘normal’ research.” But if we don’t change the incentive structures of our funding process—rewarding outcomes over longer time periods, creating incentives to encourage permanent rather than temporary jobs and make living on “soft money” less precarious, we won’t see the kind of innovation in which academic research was supposed to specialize.

“I’ve been working at this for too long, so I’m not wildly optimistic,” Stephan admitted.

Ken Chiacchia, Senior Science Writer, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, is following a non-traditional career path for science PhDs.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

UT Dallas Grows HPC Storage Footprint for Animation and Game Development

October 28, 2020

Computer-generated animation and video game development are extraordinarily computationally intensive fields, with studios often requiring large server farms with hundreds of terabytes – or even petabytes – of storag Read more…

By Staff report

Frame by Frame, Supercomputing Reveals the Forms of the Coronavirus

October 27, 2020

From the start of the pandemic, supercomputing research has been targeting one particular protein of the coronavirus: the notorious “S” or “spike” protein, which allows the virus to pry its way into human cells a Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

AMD Reports Record Revenue and $35B Deal to Buy Xilinx

October 27, 2020

AMD this morning reported record quarterly revenue of $2.8 billion and a finalized deal to buy FPGA-maker Xilinx for $35 billion in an all-stock transaction. The acquisition helps AMD keep pace during a time of consolida Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia-Arm Deal a Boon for RISC-V?

October 26, 2020

The $40 billion blockbuster acquisition deal that will bring chip maker Arm into the Nvidia corporate family could provide a boost for the competing RISC-V architecture. As regulators in the U.S., China and the Europe Read more…

By George Leopold

OpenHPC Progress Report – v2.0, More Recipes, Cloud and Arm Support, Says Schulz

October 26, 2020

Launched in late 2015 and transitioned to a Linux Foundation Project in 2016, OpenHPC has marched quietly but steadily forward. Its goal “to provide a reference collection of open-source HPC software components and bes Read more…

By John Russell

AWS Solution Channel

Rapid Chip Design in the Cloud

Time-to-market and engineering efficiency are the most critical and expensive metrics for a chip design company. With this in mind, the team at Annapurna Labs selected Altair AcceleratorRead more…

Intel® HPC + AI Pavilion

Berlin Institute of Health: Putting HPC to Work for the World

Researchers from the Center for Digital Health at the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) are using science to understand the pathophysiology of COVID-19, which can help to inform the development of targeted treatments. Read more…

NASA Uses Supercomputing to Measure Carbon in the World’s Trees

October 22, 2020

Trees constitute one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, pulling enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing the carbon in their trunks and the surrounding soil. Measuring this carbon sto Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

AMD Reports Record Revenue and $35B Deal to Buy Xilinx

October 27, 2020

AMD this morning reported record quarterly revenue of $2.8 billion and a finalized deal to buy FPGA-maker Xilinx for $35 billion in an all-stock transaction. Th Read more…

By John Russell

OpenHPC Progress Report – v2.0, More Recipes, Cloud and Arm Support, Says Schulz

October 26, 2020

Launched in late 2015 and transitioned to a Linux Foundation Project in 2016, OpenHPC has marched quietly but steadily forward. Its goal “to provide a referen Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Dominates (Again) Latest MLPerf Inference Results

October 22, 2020

The two-year-old AI benchmarking group MLPerf.org released its second set of inferencing results yesterday and again, as in the most recent MLPerf training resu Read more…

By John Russell

HPE, AMD and EuroHPC Partner for Pre-Exascale LUMI Supercomputer

October 21, 2020

Not even a week after Nvidia announced that it would be providing hardware for the first four of the eight planned EuroHPC systems, HPE and AMD are announcing a Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

HPE to Build Australia’s Most Powerful Supercomputer for Pawsey

October 20, 2020

The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth, Western Australia, has had a busy year. Pawsey typically spends much of its time looking to the stars, working with a Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

DDN-Tintri Showcases Technology Integration with Two New Products

October 20, 2020

DDN, a long-time leader in HPC storage, announced two new products today and provided more detail around its strategy for integrating DDN HPC technologies with Read more…

By John Russell

Is the Nvidia A100 GPU Performance Worth a Hardware Upgrade?

October 16, 2020

Over the last decade, accelerators have seen an increasing rate of adoption in high-performance computing (HPC) platforms, and in the June 2020 Top500 list, eig Read more…

By Hartwig Anzt, Ahmad Abdelfattah and Jack Dongarra

Nvidia and EuroHPC Team for Four Supercomputers, Including Massive ‘Leonardo’ System

October 15, 2020

The EuroHPC Joint Undertaking (JU) serves as Europe’s concerted supercomputing play, currently comprising 32 member states and billions of euros in funding. I Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Supercomputer-Powered Research Uncovers Signs of ‘Bradykinin Storm’ That May Explain COVID-19 Symptoms

July 28, 2020

Doctors and medical researchers have struggled to pinpoint – let alone explain – the deluge of symptoms induced by COVID-19 infections in patients, and what Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Nvidia Said to Be Close on Arm Deal

August 3, 2020

GPU leader Nvidia Corp. is in talks to buy U.K. chip designer Arm from parent company Softbank, according to several reports over the weekend. If consummated Read more…

By George Leopold

Intel’s 7nm Slip Raises Questions About Ponte Vecchio GPU, Aurora Supercomputer

July 30, 2020

During its second-quarter earnings call, Intel announced a one-year delay of its 7nm process technology, which it says it will create an approximate six-month shift for its CPU product timing relative to prior expectations. The primary issue is a defect mode in the 7nm process that resulted in yield degradation... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Hires Longtime Intel Exec Bill Magro to Lead HPC Strategy

September 18, 2020

In a sign of the times, another prominent HPCer has made a move to a hyperscaler. Longtime Intel executive Bill Magro joined Google as chief technologist for hi Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Keeps Cray Brand Promise, Reveals HPE Cray Supercomputing Line

August 4, 2020

The HPC community, ever-affectionate toward Cray and its eponymous founder, can breathe a (virtual) sigh of relief. The Cray brand will live on, encompassing th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

By Doug Black

Aurora’s Troubles Move Frontier into Pole Exascale Position

October 1, 2020

Intel’s 7nm node delay has raised questions about the status of the Aurora supercomputer that was scheduled to be stood up at Argonne National Laboratory next year. Aurora was in the running to be the United States’ first exascale supercomputer although it was on a contemporaneous timeline with... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Is the Nvidia A100 GPU Performance Worth a Hardware Upgrade?

October 16, 2020

Over the last decade, accelerators have seen an increasing rate of adoption in high-performance computing (HPC) platforms, and in the June 2020 Top500 list, eig Read more…

By Hartwig Anzt, Ahmad Abdelfattah and Jack Dongarra

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

European Commission Declares €8 Billion Investment in Supercomputing

September 18, 2020

Just under two years ago, the European Commission formalized the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking (JU): a concerted HPC effort (comprising 32 participating states at c Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Nvidia and EuroHPC Team for Four Supercomputers, Including Massive ‘Leonardo’ System

October 15, 2020

The EuroHPC Joint Undertaking (JU) serves as Europe’s concerted supercomputing play, currently comprising 32 member states and billions of euros in funding. I Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Google Cloud Debuts 16-GPU Ampere A100 Instances

July 7, 2020

On the heels of the Nvidia’s Ampere A100 GPU launch in May, Google Cloud is announcing alpha availability of the A100 “Accelerator Optimized” VM A2 instance family on Google Compute Engine. The instances are powered by the HGX A100 16-GPU platform, which combines two HGX A100 8-GPU baseboards using... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Microsoft Azure Adds A100 GPU Instances for ‘Supercomputer-Class AI’ in the Cloud

August 19, 2020

Microsoft Azure continues to infuse its cloud platform with HPC- and AI-directed technologies. Today the cloud services purveyor announced a new virtual machine Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Oracle Cloud Infrastructure Powers Fugaku’s Storage, Scores IO500 Win

August 28, 2020

In June, RIKEN shook the supercomputing world with its Arm-based, Fujitsu-built juggernaut: Fugaku. The system, which weighs in at 415.5 Linpack petaflops, topp Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

HPE, AMD and EuroHPC Partner for Pre-Exascale LUMI Supercomputer

October 21, 2020

Not even a week after Nvidia announced that it would be providing hardware for the first four of the eight planned EuroHPC systems, HPE and AMD are announcing a Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

DOD Orders Two AI-Focused Supercomputers from Liqid

August 24, 2020

The U.S. Department of Defense is making a big investment in data analytics and AI computing with the procurement of two HPC systems that will provide the High Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Oracle Cloud Deepens HPC Embrace with Launch of A100 Instances, Plans for Arm, More 

September 22, 2020

Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) continued its steady ramp-up of HPC capabilities today with a flurry of announcements. Topping the list is general availabilit Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This