I’ve been doing some tests on my postdoc simulation today. As suggested by colleagues at Alife XV I’ve implemented a funding system in which the total available funding increases at a lower rate than the population, leading to increased competition.
Total research output under these conditions does increase pretty significantly — however, return-on-investment remains negative, meaning we still would get more for our money by hiring half as many permanent researchers instead of postdocs. Postdocs are still the group producing the lion’s share of the actual scientific work, while permanent academics nearly all of their research time to grant-writing.
The return-on-investment is less negative than under the previous funding condition, but bear in mind the simulation currently doesn’t account for redundancy payments or training costs for new postdocs. In these runs results were showing a return of -2.5 papers per unit of funding invested as compared to a postdoc-free scenario; in the unlimited-funding condition with the same settings, the figure averaged -3.6/unit. Redundancies were higher in this condition, about 150 more each run than in the unlimited funding condition. This could change significantly, however, depending on the final formula I use for year-on-year research budget increases, given that postdocs’ fates are directly tied to how much research money is available.
The big question is whether under this condition we still see no improvement in research output or return-on-investment when candidates for promotion to permanency are selected by quality rather than randomly. At this early stage there’s little difference — I’ve only done a few runs, but non-random promotions have not demonstrated a significant difference from random ones in either total output or ROI. We’ll see if that changes when I do a larger sequence of runs.
My next test after that will be to try this version of the simulation with much longer runs to see if things stabilise at all, or whether the uncertainty introduced by the high-turnover postdoc population continues to drown out any attempts at rewarding high achievers with more grants. We’re already looking at 50-year runs here, though, so if after two centures of terrible job security we see hugely better cost efficiencies I’m still not sure that’s a massive win for the postdoc side of things. But I suppose that rests on whether you care about the human costs or not.
There’s a lot of tweaking to be done so these are very early days, but it’s an interesting first result.