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Recent Research: Beyond economic development, local life science R&D saves local lives

November 04, 2021
By: Mark Skinner

Faculty of the nation’s higher education institutions have long used research publications and citations as a measure of success. A new working paper posted by the National Bureau of Economic Researchers (NBER) suggests a select group of research publications may do more than gain the authors tenure and celebrity in their chosen field: these works are correlated with reductions in local disease-related mortality. In an era of marked increases in anti-intellectualism among legislatures, is this finding an additional argument to add to TBED policymakers’ arsenal for increasing state and regional investments targeting R&D?

Does Research Save Lives? The Local Spillovers of Biomedical Research on Mortality, written by Rebecca McKibbin (University of Sidney) and Bruce A. Weinberg (Ohio State University), reports the findings of the authors’ study using the PubMed database, the geographic location of the publishing biomedical researchers, and the timing and intensity of local mortality rates by disease. They conclude each “additional research publication on average reduces local mortality from a disease by 0.35 percent.” 

McKibbin and Weinberg also suggest “there are unrealized gains from scientific discovery that if disseminated could improve health in the national population.”

NBER notes the October 2021 working paper has yet to be peer-reviewed and is a draft circulated for comments.  SSTI thought Digest readers associated with efforts to encourage local biomedical research, investment and commercialization may wish to review the working paper to join the discussion with the authors.

Rather than correlation, McKibbin and Weinberg are attempting to establish causality and novel localized spillover effects — often difficult to independently quantify in tech-based economic development because of the early, high-risk nature of the policy interventions — making the paper potentially important to guide future TBED investments.

For several decades, knowledge spillovers have long been recognized in the academic literature as resulting from geographic agglomeration of R&D and innovation. In addition to attributes identified in cluster theory, the tacit benefits of knowledge-sharing in R&D communities, and technology diffusion beyond, are a fundamental element when characterizing the strength and robustness of regional innovation systems. 

Historically, suggestions of the presence of the “soft” assets of a dynamic innovation culture have not lent themselves well to many studies of causality. Activity measures, such as R&D funding, citations, patents and even social network analysis, have stood in as inadequate surrogates to explain proximal benefits resulting from local R&D activity.

In Does Research Save Lives?, the authors explore variation in intensity of occurrence and geography of disease mortality as related to publication of local biomedical research publications related to those particular diseases.  With the COVID-19 pandemic much in mind, it is important to note the data for mortality and publications used in the study ends in 2017.

Given the nature of their subject area being biomedical research, McKibbin and Weinberg are able to connect the research directly with medical practice through localized health care provision.  And, since NIH funding, the largest source of biomedical research funds for institutions, is most often distributed by peer-review on proposal and team quality rather than geographic proximity to disease occurrence, the authors contend the study allows them to see the results of the diffusion of the research resulting from the biomedical R&D investment across geographies and time.

Their findings, noted above, may present a first step toward explaining causality but McKibbin and Weinberg acknowledge some limitations to their conclusion, including localized costs and quality of health care, particular disease treatment and the variability in local funding and access to necessary care.

Does Research Save Lives? The Local Spillovers of Biomedical Research on Mortality is be available for download here.

recent research, life sciences