Better science = less limits + longer time.

MIT economists are weighing in on the science of creativity in a search for the source of big ideas:

“If you want people to branch out in new directions, then it’s important to provide for their long-term horizons, to give them time to experiment and potentially fail,” says Pierre Azoulay, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and an author of the study. “The researcher has to believe that short-term failure will not be punished.”

The results are contained in a working paper released this fall, “Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences,” by Azoulay, Gustavo Manso, an assistant professor at Sloan, and Joshua Graff Zivin, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego.

The researchers believe their evidence shows it is possible to manage lab work in a way that increases the chances that scientists will produce breakthrough findings, not just incremental advances within an established paradigm. “You can generate innovation, but the details matter,” says Azoulay. “What you want to provide incentives for is future performance, not performance today.”

The researchers identified 73 life scientists given HHMI support in three years — 1993, 1994, and 1995 — and tracked their work through 2006. Because these scientists were quite well-regarded before getting HHMI funding, the study compared them to groups of similarly accomplished scientists receiving NIH grants: one group of 393 scientists who had received early-career prizes, and another group of 92 scientists receiving the NIH’s MERIT funding, awarded to highly promising projects.

Among other things, Azoulay, Manso, and Graff Zivin analyzed how often these scientists published articles that were among the top 5 percent or top 1 percent of the most cited papers in their fields. They also studied “creativity” in lab research by seeing how often the scientists began using new keywords to describe the subjects of their articles.

Their findings show that compared to the early-career prize winners with NIH grants, the HHMI-funded scientists produced twice as many papers in the top 5 percent in terms of citations, and three times as many in the top 1 percent. Compared to the NIH-funded scientists with MERIT grants, the HHMI group produced about the same quantity of papers in the top 5 percent by citation, but 50 percent more papers in the top 1 percent.