Monday, October 13, 2014

Unfortunate disconnect between the facts and policymaking

The New York Times published an op-ed by U.S. Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD 1st District) in which he proposes a policy solution for the problem of, not enough innovative thinking to optimize the value of dollars spent on biomedical research.  Harris presents a fairly disparaging picture of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its poor ability to administer the money that Congress appropriates each year.  Whether this claim is true or not, one of his criticisms in particular is that NIH is funding the wrong people, investigators who, “though well-regarded in their fields,” are too old to make particularly valuable contributions to science. 
One of Congressman Harris’s more clearly defined solutions is based on an over-simplified problem definition, which presumes an inverse relationship between an investigator’s age and her propensity to produce innovative discoveries.  According to this framework, his proposed policy solution is to increase the value of dollars Congress allocates for biomedical research by lowering the average age of NIH investigators.  The sole basis for this solution rests on the results of a single study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) entitled, Age and Great Invention (Jones, 2005).   It is strikingly noteworthy that The Review of Economics and Statistics published a peer-reviewed version of this study (Jones, 2010) and concluded--in the abstract--that, "innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages.”  Furthermore, the Harris solution to increasing scientific productivity subtly and erroneously presumes that the relationship between age and productivity is causal.  In other words, young age causes productivity.  The NBER study does not seem to provide any empirical evidence to support that claim.  A more accurate interpretation suggests that the average age of “great innovation has trended upwards by approximately 6 years over the course of the 20th Century” (Jones, 2005, p. 17), and reasonably so, because the demand for increasing time requirements of education and knowledge acquisition functions as an opportunity cost of preparing aspiring great achievers to produce.  Given a more accurate interpretation of empirical observations, alternative funding policies would have a greater probability of producing desired results by incorporating evidence of the trade-off between training investment and age at time of great achievements.

Too often, policy formulation is based on belief, custom, and a need to do something rather than an in-depth understanding about the true nature of the problem.  In the matter of how to promote and ensure innovative productivity in biomedical research, a truly wise and potentially more effective solution would be to invest increased resources in and attribute greater value to policy research and evaluation efforts designed to determine which factors and circumstances predict production of research discoveries that lead to marketable discoveries that are capable of improving public health.  Congressman Harris’s statements illustrate the inherent disconnect between policy research and how its results get haphazardly translated into quick-fix policy solutions with little promise for influencing desirable outputs.  It also points out the importance of defining a public problem succinctly and rationally, using empirical evidence as a guide. 

Here's another point worth noting:  Andy Harris will be sitting on the Labor Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee this fall.  There's a god chance that his proposed policy will become a reality, or at the very least, a total nightmare for those bureaucrats charged with preparing talking points for the upcoming budget hearings.