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!

At SC19: Bespoke Supercomputing for Climate and Weather

November 20, 2019

Weather and climate applications are some of the most important uses of HPC – a good model can save lives, as well as billions of dollars. But many weather and climate models struggle to run efficiently in their HPC en Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Microsoft, Nvidia Launch Cloud HPC Service

November 20, 2019

Nvidia and Microsoft have joined forces to offer a cloud HPC capability based on the GPU vendor’s V100 Tensor Core chips linked via an InfiniBand network scaling up to 800 graphics processors. The partners announced Read more…

By George Leopold

Hazra Retiring from Intel Data Center Group, Successor Not Known

November 20, 2019

Rajeeb Hazra, corporate VP of Intel’s Data Center Group and GM for the Enterprise and Government Group, is retiring after more than 24 years at the company. At this writing, his successor is unknown. An earlier story on... Read more…

By Doug Black

Jensen Huang’s SC19 – Fast Cars, a Strong Arm, and Aiming for the Cloud(s)

November 20, 2019

We’ve come to expect Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang’s annual SC keynote to contain stunning graphics and lively bravado (with plenty of examples) in support of GPU-accelerated computing. In recent years, AI has joined the s Read more…

By John Russell

SC19 Student Cluster Competition: Know Your Teams

November 19, 2019

I’m typing this live from Denver, the location of the 2019 Student Cluster Competition… and, oh yeah, the annual SC conference too. The attendance this year should be north of 13,000 people, with the majority attende Read more…

By Dan Olds

AWS Solution Channel

Making High Performance Computing Affordable and Accessible for Small and Medium Businesses with HPC on AWS

High performance computing (HPC) brings a powerful set of tools to a broad range of industries, helping to drive innovation and boost revenue in finance, genomics, oil and gas extraction, and other fields. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Data Management – The Key to a Successful AI Project

 

Five characteristics of an awesome AI data infrastructure

[Attend the IBM LSF & HPC User Group Meeting at SC19 in Denver on November 19!]

AI is powered by data

While neural networks seem to get all the glory, data is the unsung hero of AI projects – data lies at the heart of everything from model training to tuning to selection to validation. Read more…

Top500: US Maintains Performance Lead; Arm Tops Green500

November 18, 2019

The 54th Top500, revealed today at SC19, is a familiar list: the U.S. Summit (ORNL) and Sierra (LLNL) machines, offering 148.6 and 94.6 petaflops respectively, remain in first and second place. The only new entrants in t Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

At SC19: Bespoke Supercomputing for Climate and Weather

November 20, 2019

Weather and climate applications are some of the most important uses of HPC – a good model can save lives, as well as billions of dollars. But many weather an Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Hazra Retiring from Intel Data Center Group, Successor Not Known

November 20, 2019

Rajeeb Hazra, corporate VP of Intel’s Data Center Group and GM for the Enterprise and Government Group, is retiring after more than 24 years at the company. At this writing, his successor is unknown. An earlier story on... Read more…

By Doug Black

Jensen Huang’s SC19 – Fast Cars, a Strong Arm, and Aiming for the Cloud(s)

November 20, 2019

We’ve come to expect Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang’s annual SC keynote to contain stunning graphics and lively bravado (with plenty of examples) in support of GPU Read more…

By John Russell

Top500: US Maintains Performance Lead; Arm Tops Green500

November 18, 2019

The 54th Top500, revealed today at SC19, is a familiar list: the U.S. Summit (ORNL) and Sierra (LLNL) machines, offering 148.6 and 94.6 petaflops respectively, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

ScaleMatrix and Nvidia Launch ‘Deploy Anywhere’ DGX HPC and AI in a Controlled Enclosure

November 18, 2019

HPC and AI in a phone booth: ScaleMatrix and Nvidia announced today at the SC19 conference in Denver a joint offering that puts up to 13 petaflops of Nvidia DGX Read more…

By Doug Black

Intel Debuts New GPU – Ponte Vecchio – and Outlines Aspirations for oneAPI

November 17, 2019

Intel today revealed a few more details about its forthcoming Xe line of GPUs – the top SKU is named Ponte Vecchio and will be used in Aurora, the first plann Read more…

By John Russell

SC19: Welcome to Denver

November 17, 2019

A significant swath of the HPC community has come to Denver for SC19, which began today (Sunday) with a rich technical program. As is customary, the ribbon cutt Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SC19’s HPC Impact Showcase Chair: AI + HPC a ‘Speed Train’

November 16, 2019

This year’s chair of the HPC Impact Showcase at the SC19 conference in Denver is Lori Diachin, who has spent her career at the spearhead of HPC. Currently deputy director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Exascale Computing Project (ECP), Diachin is also... Read more…

By Doug Black

Supercomputer-Powered AI Tackles a Key Fusion Energy Challenge

August 7, 2019

Fusion energy is the Holy Grail of the energy world: low-radioactivity, low-waste, zero-carbon, high-output nuclear power that can run on hydrogen or lithium. T Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Using AI to Solve One of the Most Prevailing Problems in CFD

October 17, 2019

How can artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance computing (HPC) solve mesh generation, one of the most commonly referenced problems in computational engineering? A new study has set out to answer this question and create an industry-first AI-mesh application... Read more…

By James Sharpe

Cray Wins NNSA-Livermore ‘El Capitan’ Exascale Contract

August 13, 2019

Cray has won the bid to build the first exascale supercomputer for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laborator Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

DARPA Looks to Propel Parallelism

September 4, 2019

As Moore’s law runs out of steam, new programming approaches are being pursued with the goal of greater hardware performance with less coding. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency is launching a new programming effort aimed at leveraging the benefits of massive distributed parallelism with less sweat. Read more…

By George Leopold

AMD Launches Epyc Rome, First 7nm CPU

August 8, 2019

From a gala event at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco yesterday (Aug. 7), AMD launched its second-generation Epyc Rome x86 chips, based on its 7nm proce Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

D-Wave’s Path to 5000 Qubits; Google’s Quantum Supremacy Claim

September 24, 2019

On the heels of IBM’s quantum news last week come two more quantum items. D-Wave Systems today announced the name of its forthcoming 5000-qubit system, Advantage (yes the name choice isn’t serendipity), at its user conference being held this week in Newport, RI. Read more…

By John Russell

Ayar Labs to Demo Photonics Chiplet in FPGA Package at Hot Chips

August 19, 2019

Silicon startup Ayar Labs continues to gain momentum with its DARPA-backed optical chiplet technology that puts advanced electronics and optics on the same chip Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Crystal Ball Gazing: IBM’s Vision for the Future of Computing

October 14, 2019

Dario Gil, IBM’s relatively new director of research, painted a intriguing portrait of the future of computing along with a rough idea of how IBM thinks we’ Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

ISC 2019 Virtual Booth Video Tour

CRAY
CRAY
DDN
DDN
DELL EMC
DELL EMC
GOOGLE
GOOGLE
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
ONE STOP SYSTEMS
PANASAS
PANASAS
VERNE GLOBAL
VERNE GLOBAL

Intel Confirms Retreat on Omni-Path

August 1, 2019

Intel Corp.’s plans to make a big splash in the network fabric market for linking HPC and other workloads has apparently belly-flopped. The chipmaker confirmed to us the outlines of an earlier report by the website CRN that it has jettisoned plans for a second-generation version of its Omni-Path interconnect... Read more…

By Staff report

Cray, Fujitsu Both Bringing Fujitsu A64FX-based Supercomputers to Market in 2020

November 12, 2019

The number of top-tier HPC systems makers has shrunk due to a steady march of M&A activity, but there is increased diversity and choice of processing compon Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Kubernetes, Containers and HPC

September 19, 2019

Software containers and Kubernetes are important tools for building, deploying, running and managing modern enterprise applications at scale and delivering enterprise software faster and more reliably to the end user — while using resources more efficiently and reducing costs. Read more…

By Daniel Gruber, Burak Yenier and Wolfgang Gentzsch, UberCloud

Dell Ramps Up HPC Testing of AMD Rome Processors

October 21, 2019

Dell Technologies is wading deeper into the AMD-based systems market with a growing evaluation program for the latest Epyc (Rome) microprocessors from AMD. In a Read more…

By John Russell

Rise of NIH’s Biowulf Mirrors the Rise of Computational Biology

July 29, 2019

The story of NIH’s supercomputer Biowulf is fascinating, important, and in many ways representative of the transformation of life sciences and biomedical res Read more…

By John Russell

Xilinx vs. Intel: FPGA Market Leaders Launch Server Accelerator Cards

August 6, 2019

The two FPGA market leaders, Intel and Xilinx, both announced new accelerator cards this week designed to handle specialized, compute-intensive workloads and un Read more…

By Doug Black

When Dense Matrix Representations Beat Sparse

September 9, 2019

In our world filled with unintended consequences, it turns out that saving memory space to help deal with GPU limitations, knowing it introduces performance pen Read more…

By James Reinders

With the Help of HPC, Astronomers Prepare to Deflect a Real Asteroid

September 26, 2019

For years, NASA has been running simulations of asteroid impacts to understand the risks (and likelihoods) of asteroids colliding with Earth. Now, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are preparing for the next, crucial step in planetary defense against asteroid impacts: physically deflecting a real asteroid. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

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