Bizarro Post: An Argument For Fewer Scientists

In a Bizzaro Post, I take up a position that is the complete opposite of my regular one, and argue for it in good faith.  Normal Jordan believes that we need more scientists; Bizarro Jordan will argue in this post that we need fewer.

To begin, it’s critical to acknowledge that we’re aiming at the same target — we all want to positively influence the rate and direction of scientific activity.  We want more inventions, better inventions, and we want them faster.

Normal Jordan’s solution would be to throw as many PhDs at the problem as possible.  On the surface, this sounds right: more scientists should lead to more inventions, even the really important tail ones.

However, there is one glaring problem with this argument: it is not costless.  There are two major manifestations of this problem.  The first is the opportunity cost of having more scientists — these are presumably smart people, and their talents could be employed elsewhere.  Almost certainly, at some point, we hit diminishing marginal returns to adding more scientists, and that alone nearly guarantees that there ought to be some cap (at which point we say, go be an engineer or something).

The second manifestation of cost is more nuanced, but probably more damaging: the cost of complexity.  With each additional scientist, the total body of research knowledge grows.  This in and of itself is not a problem, except that not all of this knowledge is useful.  For every seminal paper in a field, we have piles of absolutely useless articles, piled in absolutely useless journals.  If, at the margin, adding more scientists means adding more garbage, then that just means more unnecessary work the star scientists have to endure in wading through the “related work.”  Specialization, which is science’s normal coping mechanism for increasing complexity, does not help if each and every branch is weighed down by useless research, slowing down everyone’s rate of output.

To recap: adding more scientists is not costless, at the margin we are probably not adding more stars but rather more filler scientists, and those filler scientists are producing additional complexity that slows down the stars.  Evidence (albeit anecdotal thus far) for such a story surrounds us, as bottom-tier journals proliferate without an increase in publishing at the top, and likewise lower-tier research universities continue to add professors while tier-1 research universities have held faculty counts largely steady.

Adding more and more scientists, ad nauseam, is not an unmitigated good.  At some point, the marginal scientist actually slows down scientific progress, and cursory observation of the state of academia and publishing can confirm that we are well past that point.  We all want science to move faster, and we all want to improve people’s lives; it won’t be true always, but right now, having fewer scientists is the way to get there.




One thought on “Bizarro Post: An Argument For Fewer Scientists

  1. […] So this is pretty awesome: “An estimated $200 billion … is routinely wasted on poorly designed and redundant studies.”  Well so how much of this is an incentives issue?  Because redundancy should actually get punished by the current system – that sounds to me more like an information overload problem (i.e. editors can’t be expected to catch every redundant study, especially in more broadly defined fields).  This ties into another conversation which is, how many PhDs is too many?  As I cover in another post. […]


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