Economist Puts Spotlight on Incentives in Science Research

For Georgia State Economics Professor Paula Stephan, 2012 was a landmark year.

It began last January with the publication of her latest book, “How Economics Shapes Science,” to great acclaim. As the year came to a close in December, Science Careers, part of the journal Science, named her its first person of the year. In between those two events, Stephan has been more in demand than ever before.

Paula Stephan

“Economics is about incentives and cost, so I’m very interested in how scientific enterprise is practiced at universities,” Stephan says of her work. “It’s been unusually busy since the book came out and now with sequestration and budget issues and all the problems that young people are having, the topics I work on have become perhaps more policy-relevant.”

In her book, Stephan explores the basic economic principles of incentive, cost and risk as they apply to scientific research at universities. Cost-benefit calculations figure prominently in funding and hiring decisions, leading to “safe” research topics, inequitable earning and diminished career prospects for young scientists struggling in a glutted labor market, she has found.

Stephan’s expertise on the economics of science and careers of young people in the field has taken her across the U.S. and Europe. Since publishing her book, she has given more than a dozen talks at conferences and symposia of policy and scientific organizations, and she has several more lined up this year.

In addition to her speaking engagements, Stephan fields frequent press inquiries and has been tapped to write articles and op-eds for scientific journals and other publications.

Science Careers describes Stephan as “an individual who, during the past 12 months, has made an especially significant and sustained contribution to the welfare of early-career scientists.” Over the years, the publication noted in a story announcing the person of the year award, her work has changed the conversation around the scientific workforce.

Stephan continues to influence the national dialogue by serving on the National Research Council Board on Higher Education and Workforce, the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, and the Board of Reviewing Editors for Science, on top of her research and ongoing projects.

Trained as a labor economist, Stephan began to study the economics of the sciences not long after arriving at Georgia State in 1971. A researcher at the National Science Foundation drew her attention to data on hiring patterns in the sciences in the late 1970s, and she’s been working on related topics since.

Some of Stephan’s upcoming projects focus on earning inequality, the role of foreign-born people in the field and the way research funding is spent at universities, subjects that mirror more general policy concerns across the country.

“I never would have predicted these topics would be so much on people’s minds,” Stephan says. “Some progress has been made, but there’s a lot more progress that needs to be made.”

Jan. 7, 2013