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Some universities producing less scientific knowledge

While a new trend has emerged where schools such as Boston University are adding less to the country’s overall scientific research pool than in past years, scientists in evolutionary biology have increased their contributions, according to a Monday Inside Higher Ed article.

A recent study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found over the past 20 to 30 years, the top 20 percent of research universities’ production of important scientific research declined by 15 percent. At the same time, the top 20 percent of universities’ evolutionary biology departments’ production increased by 10 percent during that time period.

“There’s certainly a lot of research going on in top research universities,” said Sean Mullen, a BU evolutionary biology professor. “That’s simply a function of how the academics work in general and how the funding is parceled out. In the evolutionary biology department, individual PIs [principal investigators] all lead their lab groups … In general, BU puts emphasis on research and publishing and getting funded so that many of the departmental faculty are very productive.”

These findings have attempted to pinpoint the ongoing changes in the organization of scientific research since 1980, said Alexander Oettl, one the study’s three authors.

“Science is probably one of the most important inputs to economic growth, especially with basic research,” Oettl said. “… We were quite surprised to observe the nature of science has been changing across the past 20 or 30 years, especially in evolutionary biology. That sort of forced us to start thinking about why this might be … We see that top universities are producing a smaller share of overall knowledge, while top scientists at universities are producing an increasing share.”

The results of the study could influence the distribution of research funding for universities and private scientists, Oettl said.

“The findings have very strong implications for how we should think about funding,” Oettl said. “If we care about maximizing knowledge, then we should care about where knowledge is produced. I hope this [study] will give us some insight into the role, not only of institutions in producing knowledge, but also of individuals and their increasingly important role in producing scientific knowledge.”

Despite universities’ overall decrease in scientific knowledge contribution, the amount of “star” scientists housed at universities has increased, according to the study. The “star” faculty is credited as the faculty who are willing to do research.

“If it’s true that a few individuals are having a predominant effect on the field, that means they will attract the best post-doctorates, the best graduate students,” Mullen said. “There might be a ponderous feedback, because since they can attract the most talented people, they will be producing a wide share of quality work, and therefore will attract the best funding and resources.”

This limited distribution of funding to a select group of distinguished scientists could be a reflection of the diminishing funding climate, said evolutionary biology professor Les Kaufman.

“The other factor with funding at universities, and BU among them, has decided that they’re going to actively seek out the real stars, offer them very competitive salaries and basically leave everybody else in the dust hoping they can pull their acts together,” Kaufman said. “Part of this is strategy on the part of the universities.”

Federal investment of science, technology, engineering and math is far behind where it needs to be in the United States, Kaufman said. This pattern of research and funding distribution marks the decline of burgeoning scientists’ ability to get their start in the field.

“The difficulty that young investigators have getting their first funding will have an enormous damping effect on all fields of science,” Kaufman said. “The United States is very quickly going to fall behind the rest of the world. It already is falling behind, and we’re just seeing the tip of a huge iceberg.”

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