“Back to Basics: Basic Research Spillovers, Innovation Policy and Growth,” U. Akcigit, D. Hanley & N. Serrano-Velarde (2013)

Basic and applied research, you might imagine, differ in a particular manner: basic research has unexpected uses in a variety of future applied products (though it sometimes has immediate applications), while applied research is immediately exploitable but has fewer spillovers. An interesting empirical fact is that a substantial portion of firms report that they do basic research, though subject to a caveat I will mention at the end of this post. Further, you might imagine that basic and applied research are complements: success in basic research in a given area expands the size of the applied ideas pond which can be fished by firms looking for new applied inventions.

Akcigit, Hanley and Serrano-Velarde take these basic facts and, using some nice data from French firms, estimate a structural endogenous growth model with both basic and applied research. Firms hire scientists then put them to work on basic or applied research, where the basic research “increases the size of the pond” and occasionally is immediately useful in a product line. The government does “Ivory Tower” basic research which increases the size of the pond but which is never immediately applied. The authors give differential equations for this model along a balanced growth path, have the government perform research equal to .5% of GDP as in existing French data, and estimate the remaining structural parameters like innovation spillover rates, the mean “jump” in productivity from an innovation, etc.

The pretty obvious benefit of structural models as compared to estimating simple treatment effects is counterfactual analysis, particularly welfare calculations. (And if I may make an aside, the argument that structural models are too assumption-heavy and hence non-credible is nonsense. If the mapping from existing data to the actual questions of interest is straightforward, then surely we can write a straightforward model generating that external validity. If the mapping from existing data to the actual question of interest is difficult, then it is even more important to formally state what mapping you have in mind before giving policy advice. Just estimating a treatment effect off some particular dataset and essentially ignoring the question of external validity because you don’t want to take a stand on how it might operate makes me wonder why I, the policymaker, should take your treatment effect seriously in the first place. It seems to me that many in the profession already take this stance – Deaton, Heckman, Whinston and Nevo, and many others have published papers on exactly this methodological point – and therefore a decade from now, you will find it equally as tough to publish a paper that doesn’t take external validity seriously as it is to publish a paper with weak internal identification today.)

Back to the estimates: the parameters here suggest that the main distortion is not that firms perform too little R&D, but that they misallocate between basic and applied R&D; the basic R&D spills over to other firms by increasing the “size of the pond” for everybody, hence it is underperformed. This spillover, estimated from data, is of substantial quantitative importance. The problem, then, is that uniform subsidies like R&D tax credits will just increase total R&D without alleviating this misallocation. I think this is a really important result (and not only because I have a theory paper myself, coming at the question of innovation direction from the patent race literature rather than the endogenous growth literature, which generates essentially the same conclusion). What you really want to do to increase welfare is increase the amount of basic research performed. How to do this? Well, you could give heterogeneous subsidies to basic and applied research, but this would involve firms reporting correctly, which is a very difficult moral hazard problem. Alternatively, you could just do more research in academia, but if this is never immediately exploited, it is less useful than the basic research performed in industry which at least sometimes is used in products immediately (by assumption); shades of Aghion, Dewatripont and Stein (2008 RAND) here. Neither policy performs particularly well.

I have two small quibbles. First, basic research in the sense reported by national statistics following the Frascati manual is very different from basic research in the sense of “research that has spillovers”; there is a large literature on this problem, and it is particularly severe when it comes to service sector work and process innovation. Second, the authors suggest at one point that Bayh-Dole style university licensing of research is a beneficial policy: when academic basic research can now sometimes be immediately applied, we can easily target the optimal amount of basic research by increasing academic funding and allowing academics to license. But this prescription ignores the main complaint about Bayh-Dole, which is that academics begin, whether for personal or institutional reasons, to shift their work from high-spillover basic projects to low-spillover applied projects. That is, it is not obvious the moral hazard problem concerning targeting of subsidies is any easier at the academic level than at the private firm level. In any case, this paper is very interesting, and well worth a look.

September 2013 Working Paper (RePEc IDEAS version).


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