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Striking the Mother Lode in Science: The Importance of Age, Place and Time.

I am known as a critic of much of the academic economic research done in the U.S. My complaints must have been heard by the Managing Editor at the Southern Economic Journal because he sent me a book of serious research by economists that I think is good research. Striking the Mother Lode in Science is in many ways a model of the way I believe economic research should be done.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first chapter provides a general overview. The second addresses institutional context, as it discusses how and why science is done. The next three chapters address the question of whether age matters to research. In answering this question, the authors distinguish between eminent scientists, who often make their breakthroughs early, and the average scientist, for whom age does not matter nearly as much. Chapter 6 addresses the importance of time and place. They point out that a scientist's career is often made by being in the right place at the right time. Chapters 7 and 8 consider the question of whether cohorts of scientists vary in quality (They conclude that they do.) Chapter 9 presents the authors' conclusions and policy recommendations, which I will discuss below. But first let me enumerate briefly the methodological aspects of their research that I like.

(1) A real problem, not an analytic exercise, underlies their research. They started with a question, "Is science a young person's game?" Then they asked: What method of analysis is most appropriate to answer this question? The question, not the available techniques, determined their methodology. Throughout their analysis they apply economic reasoning in institutional context. They do not attempt to draw grand implications from general analytic systems. Instead they try to add a bit to our common sense.

(2) The question they address has policy relevance. What the answer to this question is important to more than just other academic economists--it is important to policy makers.

(3) In their analysis they use a realistic premise of what scientists do, not a formal, but unrealistic, premise. Scientists, Levin and Stephan argue, are after "puzzle, ribbon, and gold." In their analysis they consider how the pursui of these three goals influences the practice of science.

(4) They write in such a way that a broad group of intelligent lay people can follow their argument. They have no formal model; they use the economic model as a backdrop, but then use their common sense to determine what part of that model to focus on, and what part not to focus on. In the preface they thank Herb Addison, their editor at Oxford University Press, for opening up a new world of research and guiding them toward "a writing style |they~ did not know |they~ possessed."

(5) They take institutions seriously; they recognize that, to talk meaningfully about the problem they are addressing, they had to know something about the institutions of science. To get that information, they did case studies.

(6) They used a wide variety of evidence; their book contains cites to "Interviews on the MacNeil Lehrer Hour" and to other nontraditional sources.

(7) They incorporate knowledge of other fields; for example the book includes a fascinating discussion of psychology.

In short, the methodology the authors use is much broader than that found in standard economic research.

It is innovative research that should, but probably will not, get the authors lots of accolades from academic economists. It is the type of research in which one can picture the researchers becoming passionately interested, even without the ribbon or the gold. Most economic research is not the stuff of passion.

My admiration for their methodological does not imply that I believe the book is without faults. For example, on the methodological front, in chapter 8 they reverted to econometric methodology without convincing the reader that it was appropriate to do so. The foray into econometrics seems to be done more to mollify their potential academic economic critics, than to be substantively important to their analysis.

Another problem I had with the book is that their policy recommendation--that the United States should commit to long-term 4%-5% real growth in federal funding of science--was unconvincing to me and did not seem to follow from their analysis. Compared to the alternative they mention--Lederman's proposal for doubling support over the next two or three years, then 10% real growth--the authors' policy recommendation seems reasonable, but why increase federal funding of science at all? There may be reasons to increase the funding, but no reasons followed from the analysis.

Similarly with the authors' discussion of the need for major reorganization of universities. Here I agree with the authors: such a major reorganization is necessary, but their analysis didn't seem to lead to this conclusion. In short, their policy discussion was too brief and too unconnected with their analysis.

Their conclusions are not all that revolutionary. For example, they point out and document how success in science depends, at least in part, on being in the right place at the right time, and argue that this right place, right time factor makes the analysis of productivity of scientists much more complicated than it would otherwise be. That seems correct, but not revolutionary. Another, not so revolutionary conclusion is that the average quality of U.S. scientists has fallen in the last twenty-five years, and that a likely reason for that fall is job market conditions and too much competition.

But these criticisms are minor compared to my criticisms of most applied economics policy work, and I highly recommend the book to a wide range of people interested in science policy.
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Author:Colander, David C.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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