One Explanation of the Innovation Shortfall

I’ve just read a very important paper  that I strongly recommend to anyone interested in innovation and growth.  The paper, by Ben Jones, an economist at Northwestern, is called “As Science Evolves, How Can Science Policy?”. Jones documents two crucial points. First, as the length of education and training for a scientists gets longer, the value of a scientific career drops sharply.    

Second, teamwork has been getting more important. For example, on the issue of teamwork, Jones looks at all science, engineering, and social science journal articles published from 1995 to 2005, and shows that team-written papers have far more impact than solo papers.    

Take a look at these two charts, drawn from Jones’ paper.


The first chart shows that team-written papers end up drawing a lot more cites than solo papers, on average, in both science and engineering, and the social sciences. The second chart shows that the “home run” papers are much more likely to come from teams.    

(Related papers include “The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge” from Science (2007) and “The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”)    

Jones then goes on to point out that the current incentive structure in science is struggling  to deal with a world where scientists have to wait so long to get started:    

For example, if careers in finance, management, or law require more static levels of training, then scientific careers will be increasingly costly by comparison. The estimated 6-8 year delay in becoming an active innovator over the 20th century suggests, at a standard 10% discount rate, a compound 45-55% decline in the value to becoming a scientist. This kind of selection effect may not only slow scientific progress but also slow economic growth, should the positive spillovers that follow from idea creation (see Section III) not feature in other white collar careers. The recent finance boom, drawing talented undergraduates into quickly attained,high wage streams, may make this comparison particularly acute.    

[Read more…]