The Lamentable State of “Science of Science”

Innovation drives growth.  Basic research is a key component of innovation.  In recognition of these facts, the federal government spends ~$40B/year funding basic research.  Private foundations and universities fund another ~$20/B.  Corporations fund ~$16/B.  (Foreshadowing: these are the latest numbers… and are from 2012).

$75B/year, and we basically have no idea how to spend it effectively.

I am not the first to make this observation.  In the mid-oughts (can’t say why it took that long in the first place), a community started to spring up around the very issue: how can we allocate basic research money most efficiently?  Ten years later however, that community has produced scarcely any valuable answers, and the research field itself has attracted almost no top talent — indicating that the next ten years are unlikely to be any more fruitful.

I can identify three principle problems:

  1. The community is scattered.  This matters for a couple reasons.  First, we end up repeating the same questions over and over and over again, rather than spending time searching for answers.  The direct cost (wasted conference money) is probably negligible; the opportunity cost is astronomical.  Second, what few efforts there are tend not to speak to one another, with the economists doing one thing, social scientists doing another, and government agencies kind of ambling around (albeit endearingly) in the dark.
  2. The ‘field,’ as it were, attracts little serious funding — whether for data efforts or for researchers.  IRIS is a major exception, and we should laud the effort.
  3. As a consequence of 1. and 2., top talent basically ignores these questions.  And when they do engage, a la Pierre Azoulay, they find themselves rebuffed by unwilling partners (an indirect effect of 1., as well).

So what must change?  I’d suggest the same approach that Bob Strom (one of my former bosses) took at the Kauffman Foundation, to build and legitimize a field of research around entrepreneurship: support young scholars (PhDs and junior faculty) at top universities, host academic conferences on the subject, and tap key policymakers (e.g., at the NIH or NSF) to start implementing the results of the research.

It won’t be overnight, and it will require a dedicated funder, but it would make the next ten years considerably brighter.






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