If you’re interested in the (enormous) benefits of public science funding and the challenge of science stagnation, this Twitter conversation
between Alexander Berger (Co-CEO of Open Philanthopy) and Pierre Azoulay (Professor at MIT’s Sloan School) is well worth a read. Berger tweets this 2018 paper
by Azoulay and his co-authors, which tries to quantify the impact of grant funding from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) on private sector patent activity. Using a novel dataset and methodology they find that on average every $1.6m of NIH funding is associated with one additional biopharmaceutical patent.
It’s hard to put a value on this, but the authors estimate that the private and social returns are worth many times the size of the grant - not least because grants lead to about as many patents in areas outside
the stated focus areas of the grant as in them! Do read the full paper for more, but Azoulay’s tweet
is a good summary: “our numbers imply that NIH research offers a phenomenal return, and that’s before we talk about social returns
”. So far, so good… but Azoulay adds
: “My conjecture: when we repeat the analysis 20 years from now, the results will be much less impressive”. Why? “Institutional rot”. He links to these slides
from a talk he gave last month.
The story will be a familiar one to long-time readers: incentives that encourage incrementalism, risk aversion and conformity in scientific careers. Azoulay links to this piece
, which I’d not seen before, that tells the story of the last 30 years of Alzheimer’s research and argues that the dominance of a single thesis (the amyloid hypothesis
) and funding bodies’ failure to back alternatives has slowed progress towards a cure. Azoulay is a fan of randomised controlled trials for science funding itself (Michael Nielsen and Kanjun Qiu have a must-read essay
on this, which we discussed in TiB 202
). I doubt there are any silver bullets, but it seems clear that far more experimentation in funding approaches is essential.