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When breakthroughs follow failure

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By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / June 20, 2011

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Letting scientists fail may be key to motivating the kind of exploration that ultimately leads to big breakthroughs and innovation, according to new research by MIT economists.

Each year, the federal government, nonprofit organizations, and companies funnel billions of dollars into scientific and biomedical research, but the new findings suggest that something as subtle as how grants are structured may influence the type of scientific output: incremental progress or a transformative new idea.

Biologists who were given more time and latitude in their research — as well as the freedom to fail — before they were evaluated produced more hit papers and more duds, according to the new study, to be published in the RAND Journal of Economics.

“You’re the boss, and you want the employee to explore a new direction. You don’t know what those directions are. So you tell them to be creative, and what’s needed for that is a number of ingredients,’’ said Pierre Azoulay, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a coauthor of the study.

“You need to be, as a boss, willing to tolerate failure in the short term,’’ he said.

Planting the seeds of transformative “Eureka!’’ moments is a complex challenge, but research has demonstrated there are simple ways to incentivize more routine tasks.

Take the repetitive job of a windshield installer: A 2000 study showed that paying a worker a rate related to productivity, rather than a salary, had dramatic effects on output.

But for less routine tasks, such as motivating breakthrough thinking or new ideas, it has been unclear what types of incentives, if any, could be useful. And some findings suggest that high-pressure, short-term incentives squelch creativity.

To find out whether there was another way to foster big ideas, Azoulay and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California San Diego compared two groups of similar biology researchers.

One group was made up of investigators supported by the nonprofit Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which grants long-term, open-ended research funding, with a philosophy that is often summed up as funding “people, not projects.’’

The second group was similarly accomplished but was primarily supported by the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that has traditionally funded specific research projects proposed by scientists.

Those who received the more open-ended, long-term funding produced about twice as many highly influential papers — those that are in the top 1 percent, as ranked by how often they are cited.

Those researchers were also more likely to publish papers that flopped, a fact that Azoulay said supports the idea they are exploring new ideas — an endeavor that brings both the possibility of a big leap forward and the risk of a failure.

Those scientists were also more likely to do research that departed from previous research directions or that tackled new and emerging topics.

Jack Szostak, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital who has been supported by the Howard Hughes since 1998, said the ability to pursue projects without restrictions has allowed him to follow his scientific interests, even when they have taken him away from the area in which established himself early in his career.

Szostak shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of a cellular mechanism that protects the genome from degrading, but he now focuses on a very different area: the origins of life.

“It’s every scientist’s dream — if you have a new idea, you can just follow up on it; it doesn’t have to be reviewed by a committee,’’ Szostak said.

“It lets me do work I think would be hard to do otherwise.’’ He added, however, that he does not think it is the only way research should be funded.

Two years ago, the Wellcome Trust, a London-based nonprofit that funds research, unveiled a program that gives flexible grants to researchers, rather than support for specific projects.

Azoulay was careful to note the study was not a critique of the NIH or a suggestion the agency should radically switch course.

Progress, he said, depends not just on an initial breakthrough, but also on the years of research that follow.

But the study does support the idea that differences in funding may influence the direction of innovation, a factor that could be useful in a variety of organizations trying to create incentives, whether they are companies trying to motivate risk-taking or policymakers trying to best allocate funds for research, Azoulay said.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH and a scientist who once was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said the authors took an interesting approach.

A variety of funding approaches will be needed to solve the wide array of scientific challenges that exist, he said, from basic research to testing drugs in humans.

He pointed out that the NIH has created programs to fund high-risk, high-reward ideas, as well as programs aimed at supporting innovative researchers.

The NIH is also constantly examining its peer-review process — the evaluation that determines which grants get funded.

Grant reviewers used to assign a grant an overall score, but now Collins said that score is broken down into categories, including the level of innovation.

He pointed out that the study has flaws; for example, it was hard to find a truly similar comparison group.

“In my mind, the answer is going to be a mix,’’ Collins said. “Not that you put all your resources in one model.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.