Monday, January 7, 2019

Author estimates the degree to which scientists are willing to change the direction of their work in exchange for resources

Myers, Kyle, The Elasticity of Science (August 22, 2018). http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3176991

Abstract: This paper estimates the degree to which scientists are willing to change the direction of their work in exchange for resources. Novel data from the National Institutes of Health is used to estimate an entry model that accounts for strategic interactions. Inducing a scientist to change their direction by 1 standard deviation, a qualitatively small difference, requires a four-fold increase in funds, an extra $1 million per year. But at current levels, the costs and benefits of directed versus undirected research appear to be quite similar.

Keywords: economics of science
JEL Classification: H50, I23, O31, O33, O38

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How Do We Redirect Scientific Investigation? Chuck Dinerstein. ACSH, Jan 2 2019. https://www.acsh.org/news/2019/01/02/how-do-we-redirect-scientific-investigation-13698

The economic term for haggling over the size of the carrot is elasticity. Using NIH grant data from 2002 to 2009 and the similarity of applicants’ prior work to the objectives of each RFA grant a recent paper looks at the scientists’ bargain. The measure of similarity was based upon how much of scientists prior published abstracts used terminology found in the individual RFA application research objectives – the underlying assumption was the use of the same scientific language was a useful marker for the underlying science to be similar.

It is no surprise that scientists apply to highly “similar” projects, especially when they are more readily available, because of less competition, and come with good funding. So what tradeoffs do scientists make changing course and applying for less similar projects?

*    The more aligned a scientist’s and RFA research interest, the less weight is put on the amount of the total award. But as the similarity becomes less, the amount of the grant rises. A "30% less" similar field would be where a researcher was studying a vaccine for a particular virus using a specific research animal and was asked instead to investigate a vaccine for a different virus but still using the same research animal and approach. By the author’s calculation scientists require an additional $1 million/annually to change course.
*    Competition for grants is another consideration, and the author found that scientists traded an increased award size of about $80,000 for one more competitor for funding.

Put into other words, scientists are willing to be redirected, but it comes at a cost, an award about 65% greater than what they might have gotten for staying the course. That premium helps cover the adjustments necessary for tangibles, like equipment and the intangible, research preferences.

*    RFA grants result in a 16 - 24% increase in publications. But that direction is short-lived with many researchers returning to their “primary interests” once the research award ends.
*    When looking at the output of both the winners and “losers” of the RFA awards, there seems to be no difference in quantity or quality, as measured by the publishing journal’s “impact.” In the words of the author, RFA’s “create more not better science.”

What can we conclude? Not surprisingly, applicants choose the path they believe will be most likely to be funded. To get more externally directed research, to move science in the direction of “our choosing,” we must pay for a larger carrot and “…it is likely  that much larger,  sustained  levels of investments  would  be necessary  to  generate meaningful  long-run  changes.” As with all things, when we look at the devil in the details, we find human behavior is often more than “if you build it, they will come.”