Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Are there too many scientists?

by PhilipJ on 12 April 2007

That is the question asked by Richard Collins today in a letter to Science. The pertinent quote:

Is there a point at which a society is doing enough science? Is science so important that we should always want to increase the rate at which we do it? Or is it like almost every other government-funded activity, where the proponents always want more even if we are not sure that more is better? If there were only 100 scientists applying for R01 grants each year, there would be widespread agreement that this is not enough to sustain a vibrant research enterprise; if there were a hundred million, even the most ardent supporters of research would agree that this is too many. The right number, or range of numbers, must be somewhere in between. We could lobby to keep doubling the funding and hope to reach the point where all of the good science was being funded. However, if funding for science is like funding for medical care, education, or war, there is no precedent to expect that increases in funding will ever match the ability to spend the funds, for better or worse. Alternatively, or in addition, if we don’t like the model of funding that we have created, we should debate the merits of limiting the demand for research grants rather than just increasing the supply of money.

In my opinion you have to weigh funding for science relative to, as he mentions, funding for medical care, education, and war. The NSF in the US was alloted just shy $6 Billion in funding for 2007, and the NIH seems to have gotten nearly $30 Billion, though that doesn’t all go towards funding science. In contrast, the defense budget for the US in 2007 is $439.3+ Billion.

I think there’s room for science funding to grow, don’t you?

  1. Ponder Stibbons    4116 days ago    #

    Doesn’t some of the defense budget go to science funding? I’m sure it’s not a substantial percentage of $400B, but DARPA does fund basic science.

    Some would also make the argument that a strong military ensures that the US can maintain the kind of free, vibrant intellectual environment that science can thrive in…

  2. PhilipJ    4116 days ago    #

    DARPA certainly does fund science, and I didn’t include NASA’s budget, nor the DOE’s.

    The point I’m trying to make is that a very slight rearrangement of priorities could easily double the total funding for science in the U.S. There’s definitely room for growth in science funding.

  3. Alex    4111 days ago    #

    First time commenter here.

    One thing to keep in mind is that increases in funding can also lead to increased production of scientists, which leads to more people seeking grants, which leads to calls for more funding so that early career scientists aren’t left out in the cold, which leads to more funds, which leads to increased production of scientists…

    As long as our model for doing basic research produces PhD scientists as a byproduct, we’ll have this situation.

    I’m not saying that PhD scientists are a bad output, and it may be that production of PhDs is still the best way to do basic research. I’m just saying that we need to keep in mind that not every scientist should seek a career that involves the production of more scientists. This isn’t the snobbery of a new hire trying to pull the ladder up behind him, because as far as I’m concerned many of my classmates who took the non-academic track are at least as talented as me (frequently more talented), and what they are doing is at least as important for society as what I’m doing.

  4. PhilipJ    4111 days ago    #

    Hi Alex, welcome!

    I’m not saying we’ll ever necessarily satiate our (meaning scientists’) demand for funds — there will always be neat things to study, and people hoping for money to study them. But I think it is hard to argue that there are currently too many scientists when science funding takes up a comparatively small portion of a country’s budget.

    Whether we need to change the system is another question, and one that I’m not necessarily qualified to really talk about. I’d love to hear your ideas about it though, if you think there is a better alternative to graduate school for those interested in science as a career.

  5. Alex    4110 days ago    #


    It may very well be that the budget should be larger. But I am wondering about a question that may or may not be related: Is a lab full of trainees (i.e. grad students, some postdocs) necessary to get good science done? Yeah, they’re cheap, and the young are allegedly more creative, but is it really the best model for getting science done? And is it important that those trainees be studying for the Ph.D.? Could we shift the balance toward more research-based MS degrees, and would that work better for people interested in industrial careers?

    I don’t have any answers here, and I see many virtues in our system. But I like to ponder these alternatives.

  6. Andre    4105 days ago    #


    I largely agree, but I think another possibility is not to slow the production of PhDs, it’s to offer those with PhDs that want to stay in research permanent positions that are not considered stepping stones on the way to tenure. I think these positions would be very attractive to a significant fraction of people currently doing PhDs and postdocs and I think they would actually be good for the production of science since those that are good researchers but are not necessarily good advisors would have work more suited to their skills.

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