Scientists, so impractical? The results are in: Commercial Targets: 0, Freedom: 1

Scientific creativity. An engine of growth and innovation, held back by a lack of market focus and managerial discipline? So a stricter commercial regime should turn science into a lean, mean, innovation machine, right? Well…

It certainly looks like a straightforward contest.

In one corner, an organisation with a tough, demanding regime:

a d v e r t i s e m e n t

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  • review cycles are short
  • deliverables are pre-defined
  • renewal policies are not forgiving of failure

In the other corner, an institution which sounds like it operates much more like a scientist’s hippy dream:

  • early failure is tolerated
  • long term success is what is rewarded
  • freedom to experiment is strongly encouraged

So far, so predictable, yes?

Even a non-scientist wouldn’t need to be too imaginative to expect both types of operation to exist.

And it wouldn’t exactly take a brain surgeon to predict that the first of these two would be a hard-nosed business, and the second example would be one of a myriad similar government-based boondoggles.

But what might shock scientist and layperson alike, is that the reality is in fact pretty much the other way round.

Even more unexpected perhaps, might be the fact that this is not some meaningless and contrived comparison between two obscure, small scale operations, with the research conducted by some unaccredited nobody in some unheard of institution.

The first is the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The second is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which sounds to the uninitiated as if it has something to do with someone (who sensationalising editors never tire of reminding us was a ‘notorious daredevil air-racer, racy film producer, bra-designing obsessive playboy and delusory recluse’) called Howard Hughes, whose bequest currently stands at over $16 billion, making his legacy the largest private supporter of academic biomedical research in the US.

But what may perhaps be most unexpected to many is that the researcher who made the comparison (who, incidentally, is a professor from MIT Sloan) discovered that:

“HHMI investigators produce high-impact papers at a much higher rate than a control group of similarly-accomplished NIH-funded scientists”.

And if you think those findings were unexpected, you should watch this video, where he asks some equally probing questions about scientists, and gets, if anything, much more disturbing answers:

The study that Pierre Azoulay is talking about in the video above is Superstar Extinction.

Here’s another video, where he’s talking about an upcoming course that he’s running: