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Meet Carolyn Stein: Researching the economics of science

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Carolyn Stein says she’s not a morning person. And yet …

“All of a sudden I’m going on bike rides with people that leave at 5:30 a.m.,” she says, shaking her head in surprise.

Such is the appeal of MIT Cycling Club for Stein, a doctoral student in MIT’s Department of Economics, located within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. After inheriting an old road bike last year she has been shifting gears, literally and figuratively.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have happened and it’s how I’ve met people across the institute,” Stein says.

After graduating from Harvard University with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, Stein worked for a Boston hedge fund for two years. Upon arriving at MIT, she planned to study labor economics and explore why some people reach their potential in the labor force while others do not. But before long, Stein had decided to shift her area of research to the economics of science.

The economics of science

“The focus on science was influenced by one of my advisers, Professor Heidi Williams,” she says, “and also just by being at MIT surrounded by people who do science all the time. I’ve been learning what an interesting and difficult career path science is. On its surface, academic science is different from other jobs that economists typically study. For one, scientists are often motivated by factors other than wages.

“But many insights from labor economics can still help us understand how the field of science functions. Incentive and career concerns still matter. And risk is a big concern in science. You could have a very good idea, but get scooped. That can derail a scientist, and a whole year’s worth of work could be lost. That’s where this research idea began.”

Stein and her research partner, Ryan Hill, also a doctoral student in the MIT economics department, are working on two projects simultaneously, both of which focus on the careers of scientists and the incentives they face. Their first paper explores what happens when a scientist is “scooped” or, in other words, what happens to scientists when a competing research team publishes their results first. It’s a concern that resonates with researchers across many disciplines.

The impact of being scooped

“Economists often worry that while we’re working on something we’re going to flip open a journal and see that someone else has already written the same paper,” Stein says. “This is an even bigger deal in science. In our project, we’re studying a particular field of structural biology where we can actually look at data at the level of proteins and find cases where two scientists are simultaneously trying to solve the structure of the same protein.

“But one person gets there first and publishes. We’re trying to learn what happens to the other scientist, who has been scooped. Are they still able to publish? Do they get published in a lower-ranked journal, or receive fewer citations? Anecdotally, scientists say they’re very stressed about being scooped, so we’re trying to measure how much they’re penalized, if they are.”

The tension between quality and competition

Stein’s and Hill’s second paper examines the tradeoff between competition and quality in science. If competition is fierce and scientists are working overtime to get their work done sooner, the science may progress faster, Stein reasons. But if the fear of being scooped is high, scientists may decide to publish early. As a result, the work may not be as thorough.

“In that case, we miss out on the highest quality work these scientists could produce,” Stein says. “You’re looking at a trade-off. Competition means that science progresses faster, but corners may have been cut. How we as a society should feel about this probably depends on the balance of that trade-off. That’s the tension that we’re trying to explore.”

Work that resonates

After several years working and studying at MIT, Stein is now excited to see how things have coalesced: Her research topic has received positive feedback from the MIT community; she’s “super happy” with her advisers — professors Heidi Williams and Amy Finkelstein in the Department of Economics, and Pierre Azoulay, a professor of management in the MIT Sloan School of Management — and collaborating with Hill has “made the whole experience much more fun and companionable. (Williams, who continues to serve as Stein’s adviser, is now on the faculty of Stanford University.)

“I want to do things that resonate with people inside and outside the economics field,” Stein reflects. “A really rewarding part of this project has been talking to people who do science and asking them if our work resonates with them. Having scientists completely understand what we’re talking about is a huge part of the fun for me.”

Another activity Stein is enthusiastic about is her teaching experience with professors Williams and David Autor, which has affirmed her interest in an academic career. “I find teaching incredibly gratifying,” Stein says. “And I’ve had the privilege of being a teaching assistant here for professors who care a great deal about teaching.”

Women in economics

Stein would also like to encourage more women to explore a career in economics. She notes that if you were to poll students in their first year, they would likely say that economics is about what they read in The Wall Street Journal: finance, international trade, and money.

“But it’s much more than that,” Stein says. “Economics is more like a set of tools that you can apply to an astonishingly wide variety of things. I think that if more people knew this, and knew it sooner in their college career, a much more diverse group of people would want to study the field.”

Career options in the private sector are also increasing for economists, she says. “A lot of tech companies now realize they love economics PhDs. These companies collect so much data. It’s an opportunity to actually do a job that uses your degree.”

A sport with data

As the 2019 fall academic term gets underway, Stein is focused on writing her thesis and preparing for the academic job market. To explore her native New England as well as to escape the rigors of thesis-writing, she’s also looking forward to rides with the MIT Cycling Club.

“A few weekends ago,” she says, “we drove up to Vermont to do this completely insane ride over six mountain passes. The club is such a wonderful group of people. And cycling can be a very nerdy sport with tons of data to analyze.”

So, maybe not a total escape.
 

Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial Team: Emily Hiestand and Maria Iacobo