A Better Measure of the Return on Investment America Gets From Funding Research

Follow the people, not the papers.
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(Photo: Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock)

How best to measure science's impact on the economy? Should we tally patents? Perhaps scientific papers? Maybe there's an even better way of measuring, argues New York University economist Julia Lane—tracking people.

Lane and her team are pioneering a method of measuring America's return on investment in funding research, by seeing what happens to the careers of scientists who were supported by taxpayer and foundation money while they were in school. It's a departure from the past methods of measuring research's effects on the economy.

"How do we think about the effects of research investments? The first step is these people are trained in research methods, and then they go out into the workforce and that's a major way in which ideas get transmitted," Lane says. "As they say, the biggest day of technology transfer at MIT is commencement."

The companies new doctorates worked for were usually high-tech, profitable firms, with a median payroll-per-worker of $90,000.

In contrast, she says, "The counting of publications doesn't capture the processes of science."

In a study published today in the journal Science, Lane and her colleagues analyzed data on over 3,000 people who'd recently earned doctoral degrees at public universities in the American Midwest. All the new doctorates received research funding while they were in school, either from the government or private foundations. Their career outcomes were promising. "It's certainly supportive of the notion that research funding has a positive economic impact on both workers and firms," Lane says.

Almost 40 percent of the new doctorates went into private industry jobs, Lane's study found, indicating that they're bringing their new expertise straight into the economy. (Most of the others went into university jobs.) The companies they worked for were usually high-tech, profitable firms, with a median payroll-per-worker of $90,000—much higher than the average median of $33,000. Economists consider payroll-per-worker to be a sound measure of a company's productivity, since it likely means the company is bringing in a lot of money per person.

Lane emphasizes that the study wasn't set up to show that receiving research funding necessarily made doctoral students into economic powerhouses. Perhaps that would have happened even without the funding. But her study is a key first step toward a better understanding of the effects of investing in research—information that policymakers have long sought. In 2005, then-White House science advisor John Marburger published a call for more analysis of science policy, but return-on-investment measures remain crude.

Crude or not, presidents have to approve national research budgets every year. Lane insists her research is too rudimentary to draw policy conclusions from. But with such a high return on investment evident in doctoral degrees, let's hope work in the rest of the field progresses quickly.

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