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In Science, the Rich Get Richer

Report: “‘Undemocracy’: Inequalities in Science”

Author: Yu Xie, a professor of sociology, statistics, and public policy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

Summary: In a report published in the journal Science, Mr. Xie used the statistical tool known as a Gini coefficient—a measure of income equality across a given population—to assess the evenness of the distribution of science spending in the United States.

His chief conclusion is that the nation’s scientific opportunities are shared on a highly unequal basis—much more so than other well-being outcomes, such as education, earnings, or health—and are getting worse.

A Gini coefficient ranges from zero for perfect equality to one for complete inequality. Using federal data for American universities, Mr. Xie found the Gini coefficient for total research expenditures rose from 0.75 in 1990 to 0.81 in 2010. For federal research expenditures, he found the Gini coefficient climbed from 0.77 in 1990 to 0.82 in 2010. And for endowment assets, the rise was from 0.71 in 1992 to 0.76 in 2011.

Mr. Xie cited a series of possible reasons for the trend, including simple growth in the number of university-trained scientists, greater foreign competition, and tighter government and university budgets. Those factors are exacerbated, he said, by the growing specialization of science, which leads universities and grant-making agencies to rely more heavily on abstract statistical measures of scientific quality, which can be more easily manipulated by those already holding the levers of power.

Bottom Line: Mr. Xie used a statistical tool to put numbers on a phenomenon that’s already largely recognized by both scientists and policy makers, thereby adding urgency to calls for more policies and practices that disproportionately assist younger researchers.

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