Friday, April 05, 2013

Faculty research productivity distribution

Recently I looked at some national-level data for university researchers in physics, chemistry, EE, molecular biology and zoology.

The data confirm my "moneyball" suspicion: the research funding and citations of the top 20% of faculty typically exceed the bottom 60-80% combined!

In other words, one excellent researcher is worth several mediocre ones. The average annual funding for top quintile researchers in the fields listed above is in the neighborhood of $1 million, with the exception of zoology which is smaller by a half or so. Citation numbers vary widely but, again, the top quintile researchers typically generate as many cites as the bottom 60-80% combined.
Moneyball in academia

Let's suppose you're trying to hire a star STEM researcher. For our purposes, define "star" as someone who is roughly top 10% in his or her department at a good research university. Although assistant professors are hired in a very competitive process, the success rate for hiring stars in good (but not the very top ranked) departments is (by definitions given above) only about 10%.

Let's suppose you wait a while to do your hiring. Look only at researchers who have already been professors for 5-10 years (i.e., at other schools), and have a significant track record of grants, papers, citations, etc. It seems plausible that at this stage of career (late assistant and early associate professors) one can pick out top 10% candidates with reasonably high accuracy.

Suppose that, on average, researchers in the top 10% bring in $400k more per year than the average professor (e.g., one additional NIH grant). This generates about $200k per year in additional overhead return to the university, which is much greater than the salary bump required to bid such a person away from their home university. If the difference in startup cost between hiring a new assistant professor and someone with 5-10 years experience is, say, $500k, then it would take only a few years to recoup this cost. The numbers have to be adjusted for different fields (in physics the overhead differential might be less, like $100k per year), but the expected return still seems attractive if you can keep the researcher for at least 5 or possibly 10 years.


NotaPhysicist said...

Your economics makes sense, but it assumes the primary role of a top professor is to bring in grants. At Iowa State in the '90's, the chem e department valued teaching highly and worked very collaboratively to help new professors obtain grants. I hope it's still this way. Oregon State, where I live now, is attempting to rise in the rankings and undergraduate education suffers when professors are valued primarily for grant money. I worked with a few former professors at HP who liked to teach (and were decent at it) but were uninterested in obtaining grants.

John Smith said...

One problem with your statistics: there's a *very* strong positive correlation between funding availability (and subsequent size of lab/group/etc) and number of papers. More papers leads to more citations. More citations then leads to more money, and it continues. In other words, it's a very strong feedback loop.

This doesn't particularly say much about the relative ability of your top 20% and your bottom 60%, or the relative *quality* of research. If your only concern is money brought into the university in your 'Moneyball' scenario, then absolutely, picking the people who bring in the funds is an obvious path to winning. If your concern is quality of research and long-term impact, I'm not sure that the extension follows directly. There's a lot of causality to worry about in there, and your bottom 60% are still doing (presumably?) good research, or they wouldn't get/have gotten tenure -- it's just research on a micro scale, instead of research on a macro scale using massive amounts of funds. If you have so many employees (researchers working under you) that you don't even get involved in most of the research anymore, then you're not a scientist anymore: you're an administrator. Some people have skills in that area, but it doesn't make them superstar researchers -- it makes them MBAs.

BobSykes said...

A repost of an older posting. Again, the theory of tanks: reinforce success and abandon failure. Ultimately, you end up with one full professor and his postdoc and no students.

The ultimate fallacy here is that universities do not need students or curricula. But, of course, that is absurd. The defining characteristic of a university is that it has and teaches students. The policy you seem to be recommending, which is universally held by university administrators, ultimately sacrifices academic integrity for mere notoriety. A real university requires several things of its faculty: research publications, graduate student advising and mentoring, research funding, teaching undergraduates and graduates and service to departments, colleges, the university and national and international instututions. The policy you are describing actually sacrifices all of these duties but the research.

Over the years, this policy destroyed several academic programs at Ohio State, including my ownCivil engineering program

David Coughlin said...

I will note that Steve is the VP for Research. It's up to the level of management above him to define the research-education duality as a strategy [and I'm not saying that they are exclusive, that is just the framework that is posed.]

Carson Chow said...

This is even more true in academia than baseball because minor differences in early career get widely amplified later in life especially in biology where productivity is highly correlated with funding as John Smith points out.

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