REER Conference 2015

Throughout the year, I’ll be traveling to about a half-dozen conferences on economics, entrepreneurship, and innovation.  For each conference, I’ll write a short post highlighting what I thought were the most interesting papers and/or speeches.

Earlier this November, I attended the 2015 Roundtable for Engineering Entrepreneurship Research (REER), hosted by Georgia Tech, and funded in part by the Kauffman Foundation.  As usual, there were many excellent papers, but here I highlight just a few:

1)      “Frictions in the Flow of Academic Knowledge to Industry: Evidence from Simultaneous Discoveries

Michaël Bikard and Matt Marx

Topic: How does geographic isolation prevent knowledge flows from academia to industry?

Contribution: Taking inspiration from classic scientific studies of biological twins, this paper examines “scientific twins,” or simultaneous discoveries at different universities.  This allows the authors to examine differences in citation rates, varying by the geographic relationship between industry citation and the cited university research.  They find that geographic isolation (with citer and cited being in different commuting zones) significantly reduces the chance of citation.

Remaining Questions: Both the discussant and the audience made good comments, which I reproduce here.  First, the discussant pointed out that “Central locations may lead to less diversity in ideas and more entrenchment in research methods that may hinder breakthrough innovations,” citing Modrich and Lefkowitz.  During Q&A, one audience member noted that “Conditioning the analysis on ‘twins’ removes the potential advantage of isolation, which inflates the negative effect of isolation on corporate research.” 

2)      “The Private Impact of Public Maps— Landsat Satellite Imagery and Gold Exploration

Abhishek Nagaraj

*Winner of Kauffman Prize for Best Student Paper

Topic: Is knowledge mapping a public good that results in private benefit?

Contribution: This paper looks at the NASA Landsat satellite mapping program, which was a public project in the 1970s that aimed to produce images of the Earth’s surface at a high resolution.  Gold digging operations used this higher topographical detail to improve their mining capabilities.  Nagaraj exploits “idiosyncratic gaps in mapping coverage (from technical failures and cloud-cover in satellite imagery)” to establish the maps’ positive impact on mining efforts.

Remaining Questions: The hope of the paper is to shed light on the value of other kinds of public mapping efforts (e.g., the Human Genome, or the “brain mapping” project).  However, while the paper does a very compelling job establishing Landsat’s importance, it remains a completely open question whether the results are generalizable to other settings.

3)      “Killing the Golden Goose? The Decline of Science in Corporate R&D

Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, Andrea Patacconi

Topic: How has corporate funding of science changed over the past 30 years?

Contribution: The main findings in this paper are that corporate investment in basic science capabilities have been declining over time, and that even as there has been less “R” (research), there has been more “D” (development).  In other words, more patenting but less publishing by large firms.  Notably, science does not appear to be less valuable as an input, or less useful, it is just that corporations are doing less of it.  Finally, the authors find that this result is not specific to any one industry. 

Remaining Questions: What is the driving mechanism behind the decline of corporate science?  Is the underlying rationale for the mechanism (e.g., increasing investor influence, leading to short-termism) profit-maximizing, or social-welfare-maximizing?  That is, is the result a problem, and if so is it fixable?  Most fundamentally, are we losing out on potential inventions because there is nothing to fill this new gap in the scientific base?

Jordan Bell-Masterson is an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago.

Previously, Bell-Masterson worked as an analyst in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he provided support for the department's research programs and initiatives.

He also worked on SEO solutions for Cappex.com, an online college search and matching-engine based in Highland Park, Ill., and served his senior year as station manager for the Grinnell College radio station KDIC 88.5 FM.

Bell-Masterson graduated from Grinnell College in 2012 with a dual BA in English and economics, with honors.