Economics of science funding

This month’s issue of Technology Review has a story about economists studying how to best fund science to maximize productivity. One of the points in the article, which comes from this working paper,  is that researchers who receive funding that is long term and rewards risk taking, like those from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), produce more high impact papers than their counterparts who receive approximately equivalent funding from the NIH that has more strings attached.  From the article:

Natural experiments also allow economists to study how different types of grants affect scientists. For instance, it turns out that scientists whose funding affords them unusual long-term freedom in the lab are more likely to generate breakthroughs, according to a November 2009 working paper by Azoulay, Graff Zivin, and Gustavo Manso, an assistant professor at Sloan.

To reach this conclusion, they compared the productivity of two groups of scientists from 1998 through 2006: investigators at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland and researchers given NIH grants. The HHMI scientists were encouraged to take risks and received five years of financial support, with a two-year grace period after funding was terminated. The standard NIH grants, known as R01 grants, lasted three to five years, and recipients were monitored more closely; funding ceased immediately if the grant was not renewed. The researchers found that papers by the HHMI scientists were far more likely to be heavily cited and covered a broader range of subjects. Those scientists also mentored more young colleagues who went on to win prizes.

The authors tried to control for the intrinsic productivity of the researchers although being selected for an HHMI award could indicate something distinct that is independent of what the economists tested for.  The NIH has tried to emulate the HHMI model with its Pioneer Awards.  However, it always seemed to me that these prestigious awards seem to be given to people that are already well funded and are already successful.

To really try something different, some funding agency should specifically seek out creative people that are struggling.  My guess is that, although some careers could be rescued, the bulk would not be.  The main reason is that a successful research program, especially in biology, involves both creativity and managerial qualities.  I’ve seen several brilliant people struggle in academic positions because they had difficulties dealing with the administrative and organizational demands of the job.  They just could never get their act together to finish projects and publish, much less get grants.  I don’t think secure funding would save them.  The productivity gap between people is much larger than the technical ability gap because organizational/managerial ability is a multiplicative factor.


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