The rate of scientific innovation appears to be decreasing over time. Across disciplines, it is taking a larger number of researchers to sustain the current rate of innovation (Bloom et al 2020). There has been a decrease in the number of publications on novel topics and with disruptive conclusions (Milojevic 2015, Park et al 2023). Given the importance of scientific innovation for spurring increases in productivity and economic growth, this is a troubling trend (Kogan et al 2017, Baldos et al 2018, Watzinger and Schnizter 2019).
Fortunately, several findings in the research literature suggest that there may be ways of reorganizing university-based science so as to increase the production of scientific innovation (Clancy 2023). For example, a number of studies suggest that bringing scientists with different skill sets, ideas, and stores of knowledge into more frequent and sustained contact with each other promotes novel research (Fleming 2001, Uzzi et al 2013, Arts and Veugelers 2015, Wu et al 2019, Lin et al 2022). Other findings indicate that innovation is heightened by increasing the numbers of scientists who have unconventional backgrounds and experiences (Yang et al 2022). Allowing younger researchers more time for research may also increase the prevalence of scientific innovation (Liu et al 2018, Yu et al. 2022, Cui et al. 2022). Finally, increasing the exposure of graduate students and faculty to the idea of entrepreneurship may catalyze the production of innovation (Kacperczyk 2013, Eesley and Wang 2017, Rocha and Van Praag 2020).
Although promising, these studies are largely based on observational data, and are limited in the extent to which they can inform policy. Randomized controlled trials would produce the most reliable estimates of the impacts of alternative university practices and policies on the production of scientific innovation.
In partnership with the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences, the Social Science Research Council is developing an initiative to pilot evaluations of alternative university practices to explore a new frontier in the science of innovation: experimentation on university campuses. In partnership with College and University Fund institutions, the Council recently launched a research and implementation consortium with the goal of identifying cost-effective and scalable interventions to increase the presence and success of women in economics. The Women in Economics Research Consortium signals the strong interest of research universities in partnering on experimental evaluations of alternative university practices and policies to increase the numbers and success of women in economics. This interest indicates the potential for experiments on university campuses to significantly advance the science of innovation.