What is a bubble? As is often the case with language, one word can embody multiple meanings.  I am referring to the type of bubble emergent from large-scale social phenomena. It is generally a self-reinforcing process, where participants come to believe that by buying in or investing in some underlying thing, they will see increased value from that thing in the future.  It is self-reinforcing, because people who are initially on the sidelines will observe others who are participating making gains, and often feel compelled to join the fray lest they loose out.   This kind of self-reinforcment will accelerate until one of several things stops it, such as: lack of further participants to play the game, gross misalignment of the ratio of perceived to the true value of the underlying thing, or external factors such as a change in underlying conditions that supported the bubble in the first place.  When this happens, the process reverses, often precipitously, and becomes self-reinforcing in the opposite direction.

In the past 15 years, the US has seen both a major internet bubble and a housing bubble.  The bursting of each one has led to economic downturn, and it is unlikely we are yet done with the busting of the housing bubble.   

This has been in the tea leaves for some time.  I remember back in 2005 I briefly started thinking, "we should get into the house flipping business."  It was one of those offhand thoughts, seeing so many people making money on houses, and feeling left out.  Fortunately the thought was short-lived.  But, after it crossed my mind, it resurrected some long-standing curiosity I had about how our financial system works, and could produce ever-increasing housing values.  As a scientist used to analyzing biological systems, it seemed to me that it was unnatural to have any system that could ever grow with respect to a parameter (in this case, price), without fail.  After pondering that for a bit, I started doing some reading, with books like "America's Bubble Economy".   I soon realized that unlimited housing price growth was unlikely, and in fact, that we were in a classical bubble that was likely to pop.  And, when housing bubbles burst, they often take whole economies with them.

Is an academic science bubble happening?

Ever since, I've been pondering whether the academic science endeavor has also been the subject of a bubble.  It certainly has many of the same trappings - I see buildings going up all over my campus - and every campus I visit.  These buildings are being built because it has been thought that universities could hire more faculty to fill them, who will bring in more federal grants, in theory paying for themselves and facilitating ever more such expansion essentially "for free".  This in turn was promoted by underlying factors like: the doubling of the NIH budget during the Clinton years, the more recent expansion of the NSF budget, and the easy availability of building monies through bonds from the large pools of capital that were swirling around the world. 

I believe many universities have fallen prey to the "lets not get left behind" mentality I mentioned regarding housing.  They have seen other universities building new buildings to attract world-class faculty, and so they feel they must too do the same, lest they be left behind.  It's been the "no university left behind" era.  As such, the process became self-reinforcing.  Further adding to this process was that many states have gotten on the bandwagon, investing in high tech, big science initiatives, like North Carolina's cancer research fund, pumping $25 to 50 million per year into research on cancer.  North Carolina is by no means unique - many other states and private foundations have pumped huge amounts of money into cancer research.  This has been self reinforcing, because as soon as one state does it, that puts pressure on other states to do it, or be left behind in the cure-for-cancer race.

This has the trappings of a bubble, albeit one moving at a slower, academic time scale.  And if it is a bubble, it too will meet the same end that all bubbles do: it will pop.  

Unfortunately, the underlying conditions supporting this bubble have been changing for some time; NIH budgets have been flat (at best) for years, and now with the entire economy of the Western world in a mess, it seems unlikely that science budgets are going to grow again anytime soon, except perhaps in narrow areas such as alternative energy/biofuels.  Many state budgets are rapidly going into the red, making it likely that, even if federal spending remains, state funding will slow. 

University budgets are getting squeezed from all sides now - the shrinking federal grant pool, the shrinking state money pool, the shrinking foundation money pool.  Many universities are already implementing hiring freezes, a few have actually started with layoffs.

Our academic system is a microcosm of the broader economy.  It is essentially a winner-take-all arrangement, where a few lucky people who achieved tenured PI status (I recently joined the ranks of those lucky ones) have pretty good job security, and everyone else has little security.  The US economy is like that too - there are many rich people who have more than enough to get by, and on the other side, an increasing number of people who have no job, and are finding it increasingly tough to get by.

Many of my colleagues have expressed an opinion that after a short hiccup, things will get better again.  They are encouraged that the new administration is much more pro-science than the last.  They recall the last few, short, painful recessions, and the tight times that lasted for a few years, then resumed to "normal".

But, if we have been in a bubble, its popping will be felt much more deeply and broadly than any previous hiccup in our growth on the way up to its top.  It could be a self-reinforcing process on the way down as it was on the way up.  If widespread fear sets into the University budget planning process, a new mode of operation is likely to be implemented that will be much more conservative, putting off new investment in buildings, equipment, and people. 

The lack of new investment might reduce the rate of progress, and the interest of the best and brightest to get into science.  With less people getting into science, progress would slow, and the justification for investing in science would be weakened.  Whether or not such a scenario plays out, it is clear that this time it is different; this is no minor hiccup on the way to resuming growth.  There are simply too many mouths too feed at the federal trough, and too much debt accumulated, for the "good times" of budget doubling to resume anytime soon.

As we were on our way up the slope to the bubble top, everyone was motivated to work harder and harder, to try to "get ahead" in capturing the ever increasing spoils - space, grants, awards, etc.  A side effect of this is that it has produced a large and very hard-working labor pool of academic researchers, from graduate students to post docs to faculty.   I have more senior colleagues that say, in so many words, that they wouldn't choose another academic career if they had to start over, because things have gotten so much more competitive and fast paced.  This point of view is coming from very reputable scientists.

Are scientists working too hard?

It seems that as a result, many people are now working too hard.  That is bound to be a controversial statement.  Can a scientist ever really work too hard?  Well, yes.  This can be seen from multiple perspectives.  The first is a personal one.  For many, the scientific career ladder has involved a tradeoff between having a family or pursuing science.  For this reason, the retention of women in senior ranks is low, the sacrifice is too great.  The greatest scientists I have had the pleasure of knowing always had outside hobbies and interests.  Working too hard can inhibit morale and creativity.  It can lead to burnout.  It is my theory that it is no coincidence that great scientists have outside hobbies, precisely because it inhibits burnout.

But that is not main reason I claim that people are working too hard.  Rather, it is stepping back and taking a look at the macro picture.  The scientific endeavor has just spent 30 years in a rampant growth spree, supported by underlying growth of the world's economies.  That is changing, and who knows when (or if) growth of that nature will resume.  At no time in human history has any society supported the level of scientific effort that is invested in western countries, the US in particular (and, as an aside, no country has had the level of debt that the US now carries -- ever).

If we assume that the scientific endeavor is going to have to downsize as a result, there are two ways of doing this.  There is the Darwinian, winner-take-all approach, where the "haves" continue working extremely hard to maintain their share of an ever shrinking pie, and the pool of "have-nots" keeps growing larger with an increasing number of people being pushed out altogether.  Right now, this seems the path we are on by default.  In some sense, given the way the system is configured, this is the natural outcome.  But that does not mean it is the best outcome.  Nature can be cruel.  One would hope that we can do better than that.

Maybe this is utopian, but I envision an alternative where everyone, even those of us who are the "haves," scale back our efforts to better share the shrinking pie, so that it becomes less of a division between haves and have-nots.  How can such a utopian vision be justified?  By a look at a list of the nobel prize winners for the past 30 years: there is little correlation with being a large, well-funded lab, and having made groundbreaking contributions to science.  That's because, as I've argued before, I believe that much of the truly groundbreaking science is serendipitous, rather than by design.  If I am right about that, maximizing serendipity means maximizing the number of participants with differing approaches, world-views, interests, and hypotheses.

So, it would be the greater good to distribute whatever there is of the remaining research pool as widely as possible, rather than letting it accumulate ever more into a smaller and smaller number of labs.   How can this be done?  I'll address that in the next installment.

-Morgan Giddings