Does grant peer review punish risk taking? While risk is an inherent aspect of innovation, those projects with high degrees of risk may be more likely to lead to breakthrough innovation yet may face challenges in winning the support necessary to be carried out. To study this, we analyze 103,164 R01-equivalent grants from the National Institutes of Health, 1980-2015. To measure risk taking, we use four distinct approaches — extreme tail outcomes, disruptiveness, pivoting from an investigator’s prior work, and pursuing intellectually distant ideas from other investigators — that each capture a different aspect of what it means to take risks. After carefully controlling for investigator, grant, and institution characteristics, we measure the association between risk taking and grant renewal. Across each of these measures, we find grants with high levels of risk taking are renewed at lower rates than those with lower levels of risk taking. The magnitudes of these effects are large: when comparing grants in the top and bottom deciles of risk taking, grants with greater risk taking have a 20.5%, 24.4%, 16.9%, and 12.4% decline in renewal rate for each measure of risk taking, respectively. We conclude with a discussion of the implications for policy-makers and managers of innovation for fostering risky research.
Contact person: Michael Rose