Adaptability and the Pivot Penalty in Science

37 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2021

See all articles by Ryan Hill

Ryan Hill

Kellogg School of Management

Yian Yin

Northwestern University - Center for Science of Science and Innovation; Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO); Northwestern University - Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences

Carolyn Stein

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dashun Wang

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO)

Benjamin F. Jones

Northwestern University; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: July 14, 2021

Abstract

The ability to confront new questions, opportunities, and challenges is of fundamental importance to human progress and the resilience of human societies, yet the capacity of science to meet new demands remains poorly understood. Here we deploy a new measurement framework to investigate the scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the adaptability of science as a whole. We find that science rapidly shifted to engage COVID-19 following the advent of the virus, with scientists across all fields making large jumps from their prior research streams. However, this adaptive response reveals a pervasive “pivot penalty,” where the impact of the new research steeply declines the further the scientists move from their prior work. The pivot penalty is severe amidst COVID-19 research, but it is not unique to COVID-19. Rather it applies nearly universally across the sciences, and has been growing in magnitude over the past five decades. While further features condition pivoting, including a scientist’s career stage, prior expertise and impact, collaborative scale, the use of new coauthors, and funding, we find that the pivot penalty persists and remains substantial regardless of these features, suggesting the pivot penalty acts as a fundamental friction that governs science’s ability to adapt. The pivot penalty not only holds key implications for the design of the scientific system and human capacity to confront emergent challenges through scientific advance, but may also be relevant to other social and economic systems, where shifting to meet new demands is central to survival and success.

JEL Classification: O3

Suggested Citation

Hill, Ryan and Yin, Yian and Stein, Carolyn and Wang, Dashun and Jones, Benjamin F., Adaptability and the Pivot Penalty in Science (July 14, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3886142 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3886142

Ryan Hill

Kellogg School of Management ( email )

2211 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Yian Yin (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Center for Science of Science and Innovation ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO) ( email )

Chambers Hall
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Evanston, IL 60208-4057
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Northwestern University - Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences ( email )

2145 Sheridan Road
Room C210
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Carolyn Stein

Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( email )

Dashun Wang

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO) ( email )

Chambers Hall
600 Foster Street
Evanston, IL 60208-4057
United States

Benjamin F. Jones

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States
847-491-3177 (Phone)
847-467-1777 (Fax)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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