Uncertainty and Individual Discretion in Allocating Research Funds

Co-author: Michael Kearney, MIT

Abstract: New ideas at the frontier of knowledge often encounter resistance from the community of active researchers. Many research funding programs rank proposals by peer review scores, thereby limiting their ability to fund novel and transformative research. An alternative system empowers an individual to use expert discretion to make funding decisions. We show here that individual discretion has been implemented at the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) in the United States Department of Energy. Using internal program data from 2009 to 2015, we examine the determinants of project selection and the short-term productivity of projects in terms of publications, patenting, and market engagement. Our key findings are 1) ARPA-E program directors use significant discretion, 2) they tend to fund projects with champions among the external reviewers, without being swayed by skeptics, and 3) there is no evidence that this use of discretion has reduced the quality of ARPA-E’s research portfolio.

References: Pierre Azoulay, Scott Stern

Simultaneous Pursuit of Discovery and Invention in the US Department of Energy
Working Paper

Co-author: Venky Narayanamurti, Harvard

Abstract: The division of “basic” and “applied” research is embedded in federal R&D policy, exemplified by the separation of science and technology in the organizational structure of the US Department of Energy (DOE). In this work, we consider a branch of DOE that shows potential to operate across this boundary: the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). We construct a novel dataset of nearly 4,000 extramural financial awards given by DOE from 2010 to 2015, primarily to businesses and universities. We collect the early knowledge outputs of these awards from Web of Science and the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Compared to similar awards from other parts of DOE, ARPA-E awards are more likely to jointly produce both a publication and a patent, with at least 5 times higher odds. ARPA-E awards have been productive in creating new technology, without a detrimental effect on the production of new scientific knowledge. This observation suggests the unity of research activities which are often considered separate: that which produces discoveries and that which produces inventions.

Synthesis of Nanostructured Graphene and BN Aerogels
T. Pham*; A. P. Goldstein*; J. Lewicki; S. O. Kucheyev; C. Wang; T. P. Russell; M. A. Worsley; L. Woo; W. Mickelson; A. Zettl, “Nanoscale Structure and Superhydrophobicity of sp2-Bonded Boron Nitride Aerogels,” Nanoscale, 2015, 7, 10449.

A. P. Goldstein; W. Mickelson; A. Machness; G. Lee; M. A. Worsley; L. Woo; A. Zettl, “Simultaneous Sheet Cross-Linking and Deoxygenation in the Graphene Oxide Sol-Gel Transition,” J. Phys. Chem. C, 2014, 118, 28855.

M. Rousseas; A. P. Goldstein; W. Mickelson; M. A. Worsley; L. Woo; A. Zettl, “Synthesis of Highly Crystalline sp2-Bonded Boron Nitride Aerogels,” ACS Nano, 2013, 7, 8540.

Crystal Structure of Metal Oxide Nanowires for Water Splitting
A. P. Goldstein; S. C. Andrews; R. F. Berger; J. B. Neaton; P. Yang, “Zigzag Inversion Domain Boundaries in Indium Zinc Oxide-Based Nanowires: Structure and Formation,” ACS Nano, 2013, 7, 10747.
Photophysical Properties of Chromophores for Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells
T. E. Knight; A. P. Goldstein; M. K. Brennaman; T. Cardolaccia; A. Pandya; J. M. DeSimone; T. J. Meyer, “Influence of the Fluid-to-Film Transition on Photophysical Properties of MLCT Excited States in a Polymerizable Dimethacrylate Fluid,” J. Phys. Chem. B, 2011, 115, 64.

P. G. Hoertz; A. P. Goldstein; C. Donley; T. J. Meyer, “Using the Voids. Evidence for an Antenna Effect in Dye-Sensitized Mesoporous TiO2 Thin Films,” J. Phys. Chem. B, 2010, 114, 14772.