Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences

I stumbled on this fascinating paper while looking for “cancer moonshots”. Can funding environment with a higher tolerance for failure to provide more durable outcomes? I haven’t annotated/read the paper in the entirety but leaving the post with this open-ended question. Systems biology is specifically sensitive to these issues but I have long held that radiobiology should get the desired focus. We haven’t seen the ideas percolate down to clinical applications. (emphasis mine throughout)

Despite its presumed role as an engine of economic growth, we know surprisingly little about the drivers of scientific creativity. In this paper, we exploit key differences across funding streams within the academic life sciences to estimate the impact of incentives on the rate and direction of scientific exploration. Specifically, we study the careers of investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which tolerates early failure, rewards long-term success, and gives its appointees great freedom to experiment; and grantees from the National Institute of Health, which are subject to short review cycles, pre-defined deliverables, and renewal policies unforgiving of failure. Using a combination of propensity-score weighting and difference-in-differences estimation strategies, we find that HHMI investigators produce high- impact papers at a much higher rate than a control group of similarly-accomplished NIH-funded scientists. Moreover, the direction of their research changes in ways that suggest the program induces them to explore novel lines of inquiry.

Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences