Scientific retractions and competition for jobs
According to a recent article in the New York Times:
"the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade"
The article suggests that this may be partly due to scientists cutting corners (fraud, or sometimes choosing to publish more papers rather than to check results more carefully), due to increased competition for jobs:
"In 1973, more than half of biologists had a tenure-track job within six years of getting a Ph.D. By 2006 the figure was down to 15 percent."
Over the same period, competition for research grants has becoming increasingly fierce. Meanwhile, universities that hired many more faculty and built many more buildings than needed for teaching (anticipating lots of research grants from which university administration takes up to 50%) deny tenure to even excellent teachers and researchers who don't bring in enough grant money.
Some scientists suggest that these problems could be solved by exponentially increasing research funding to match the exponential increase in PhDs, just as some economists suggest that an exponential increase in food production is the solution to exponentially increasing population. But neither of those is going to happen. So, the article suggests, maybe we should:
"move away from the winner-take-all system, in which grants are concentrated among a small fraction of scientists. One way to do that may be to put a cap on the grants any one lab can receive. Such a shift would require scientists to surrender some of their most cherished practices -- the priority rule, for example, which gives all the credit for a scientific discovery to whoever publishes results first."
I don't think the link between winner-take-all and the "priority rule" is so clear. I can only think of two cases, over my whole career, where someone beat me to a specific result I was working on also. But labs with more resources than mine get more total results, which helps them out-compete me for grants, so that they get even bigger. Should we limit this process of cumulative advantage?
We're talking about tax money here, so we should do what's best for society as a whole, not necessarily what's best for individual scientists or aspiring scientists. But there may be societal benefits to making scientific careers more achievable, or at least perceived as more achievable. Kids who aspire to be scientists rather than football players may learn more in school and subsequently make more contributions to society, whether or not they actually become scientists.
Even leaving such role-model benefit aside, data from NIH show that labs with less total funding produce more papers per dollar. So the public might get more research per tax dollar by spreading the wealth around to more labs.