Space Dance


A new book examines the economic and social impacts of R&D

Last May, we highlighted a report on workforce training and technological competitiveness which outlined trends in research and development investment. The report found that despite “total U.S. R&D funding reaching an all-time high in 2015,” it’s shifted dramatically to the private sector: “federal funding for R&D, which goes overwhelmingly to basic scientific research, has declined steadily and is now at the lowest level since the early 1950s.” This week, we take a look at the returns to these investments and discuss how best to measure and trace the ways research spending affects economic activity and policy.

In the most recent Issues in Science and Technology, IRWIN FELLER reviewsMeasuring the Economic Value of Research, a technical monograph that discusses how best to measure the impact and value of research on policy objectives. Notably, the book highlights UMETRICS, a unified dataset from a consortium of universities “that can be used to better inform decisions relating to the level, apportionment, human capital needs, and physical facility requirements of public investments in R&D and the returns of these investments.” While it represents a big data approach to program evaluation, Feller notes that UMETRICS’ strength is in the “small data, theory-driven, and exacting construction of its constituent datasets,” all of which offer insight into the importance of human capital in successful R&D:

“The book’s characterization of the ways in which scientific ideas are transmitted to and constitute value to the broader economy encompasses publications and patents, but most importantly includes the employment of people trained in food safety research. This emphasis on human capital reflects a core proposition of UMETRICS, namely the ‘importance of people—students, principal investigators, postdoctoral researchers, and research staff—who conduct research, create new knowledge, and transmit that knowledge into the broader economy.’

In particular, the chapters on workforce dynamics relating to employment, earnings, occupations, and early careers highlight the nuanced, disaggregated, and policy-relevant information made possible by UMETRICS. These data provide much-needed reinforcement to the historic proposition advanced by research-oriented universities that their major contribution to societal well-being—economic and beyond—is through the joint production of research and graduate education, more than patents or other metrics of technology transfer or firm formation.”

The UMETRICS dataset traces the social and economic returns of research universities and allows for a larger examination of universities as sociopolitical anchors and scientific infrastructure.

Link to Feller’s review, link to the book.

  • In a recent book, Jason Owen-Smith, executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS) which compiles the UMETRICS dataset, provides a robust defense of research universities, which, he argues, “more than any other institution, [are able] to innovate in response to new problems and opportunities.” Link. And link to an Inside Higher Ed interview with Owen-Smith.
  • The IRIS UMETRICS Twitter page compiles innovative research and papers that make use of UMETRICS data. Link.
  • A 1979 Science paper—linked to in Feller’s review—outlines the economic benefits of research for agricultural productivity. Link.


  • New on the Phenomenal World, an interview with Johannes Haushofer on the state of the evidence for cash transfers. “For cash transfers, we have pretty good evidence that for short and medium run they do have those positive effects. Then, there’s a second question, which we talked about earlier: if you’re choosing from a menu of options, which one should you choose? And that’s a question that scientists can’t really speak to–it hinges on what you, as a policymaker, prioritize.” Link.
  • Helen Nissenbaum and Julia Powles on the problems of algorithmic fairness as a master category in the digital ethics space: “Addressing bias as a computational problem obscures its root causes… When underlying systemic issues remain fundamentally untouched, the bias fighters simply render humans more machine readable, exposing minorities in particular to additional harms. Bias is real, but it’s also a captivating diversion.” Link.
  • Does spending on K-12 matter? (Yes.) By C. Kirabo Jackson. Link.
  • “The Statistical Insignificence of Seemingly Significant Experimental Results.” Alwyn Young re-analyzes 53 major RCTs published by the AEA. Link.
  • New from Susan Dynarski, C.J. Libassi, Katherine Michelmore, and Stephanie Owen: When students are offered four years of free tuition (and fees) upon admission, application rates of low-income students to selective colleges more than doubles. Link. ht Sidhya
  • JW Mason with some helpful notes on regression analysis (a must read for the uninitiated).Link.
  • A new NBER paper on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: “Firms with greater expected tax savings from the TCJA are those most likely to announce payments to workers and plans to increase investment. Firms with a Political Action Committee that donates more to Republican candidates are also more likely to announce benefits to employees.” Link. More on TCJA from perennial favorite Brad DeLong. Link.
  • From VoxDev, on corruption in Brazil: What’s the preferred source of money for corrupt officials? Link.
  • “A Danish trade union signed a collective bargaining agreement with, a platform providing domestic work. This agreement debunks many myths about platform work, the first one being that it is not compatible with existing forms of labor protection. Secondly, it shows that labor protection is not necessarily an alternative to autonomy.” Link.
  • “The relationship between armed rebels and local civilians is among the least understood aspects of insurgency. This article posits a novel theory, the rebels’ resource curse, to argue that the interaction between rebel groups and local communities can be traced to the availability of revenue-generating resources. Rather than resource wealth contributing to greater social engagement and fruitful insurgent-civilian interactions, it appears to precipitate isolationist, and even exploitative and violent relations. Conversely, resource scarcity predicts a greater degree of social integration and cohesion between civilians and insurgents.” Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations:

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