Does the NIH Fund Edge Science?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plays a critical role in funding scientific endeavors in biomedicine that would be difficult to finance via private sources. One important mandate of the NIH is to fund innovative science that tries out new ideas, but many have questioned the NIH’s ability to fulfill this aim. We examine whether the NIH succeeds in funding work that tries out novel ideas. We find that novel science is more often NIH funded than is less innovative science but this positive result comes with several caveats. First, despite the implementation of initiatives to support edge science, the preference for funding novel science is mostly limited to work that builds on novel basic science ideas; projects that build on novel clinical ideas are not favored by the NIH over projects that build on well-established clinical knowledge. Second, NIH’s general preference for funding work that builds on basic science ideas, regardless of its novelty or application area, is a large contributor to the overall positive link between novelty and NIH funding. If funding rates for work that builds on basic science ideas and work that builds on clinical ideas had been equal, NIH’s funding rates for novel and traditional science would have been the same. Third, NIH’s propensity to fund projects that build on the most recent advances has declined over the last several decades. Thus, in this regard NIH funding has become more conservative despite initiatives to increase funding for innovative projects.
We thank Bruce Weinberg, Joel Blit, Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, David Studdert, Partha Bhattacharyya, Neesha Joseph, and Walter Schaeffer for discussions. We also thank seminar participants at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Stanford Medical School, and the National Bureau of Economic Research working group on Invention in an Aging Society for helpful feedback. Finally, we thank the National Institute of Aging for funding for this research through grant P01-AG039347. We are solely responsible for the content and errors in the paper. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.