Simultaneous Discoveries

My research focuses on the conditions under which organizations translate —or fail to translate— scientific discoveries into new technologies. Historical examples reveal that, while this development can be very rapid in certain circumstances, scientific knowledge can sometimes remain unexploited for years. For instance, inhalation anesthesia had to be re-discovered independently many times, over the course of decades, before one person finally turned it into the medical technology that revolutionized the practice of surgery. Discerning the circumstances under which scientific discoveries are developed into new technologies is very difficult because the technological potential of the scientific knowledge is always unobserved. My dissertation addresses this challenge by introducing a novel empirical strategy. I use simultaneous discoveries in science to conduct the first “twin studies” of new scientific knowledge.


Simultaneous Discoveries as a Research Tool: Method and Promise (MIT Sloan Working Paper)


Nearly half a century after Merton’s description of simultaneous discoveries “as a strategic research site” (Merton 1963), they are hardly ever used by social scientists. Although their promise as a research tool has been established, operationalization issues have hindered their use. Disagreement exists over the appropriate amount of scientific and technological similarity necessary to consider two or more discoveries a multiple. This paper intends to unleash the potential of simultaneous discovery as a research tool. First, we review prior work on the topic and describe the vast theoretical potential of this approach. Second, we propose a new method that uses the literature on the social construction of science to go beyond the old debate of scientific and technological similarity. Third, we present a new algorithm that generated a large dataset of scientific multiples in an automated and systematic fashion. Finally, we describe the resulting sample of 578 recent discoveries made by 1,246 teams of scientists working in a variety of settings around the world.


Is Knowledge Trapped Inside the Ivory Tower? Technology Spawning and the Genesis of New Science-Based Inventions (Revise & Resubmit at Management Science)

New scientific knowledge sometimes remains underutilized as compared to its technological potential. We examine two views of the process of science-based invention at the level of the knowledge-producing organization. In one, widespread access to the new scientific knowledge is crucial, and the academic environment therefore fosters invention. In the other, control is paramount and scientific research conducted in firms leads to more new technologies. Analysis of follow-on inventions, based on 39 simultaneous discoveries between academia and industry involving 90 teams and cited in 533 patents, indicates that a scientific publication originating from a firm is 20-30% more likely to be cited in follow-on patents than its academic twin. Contrary to the idea that ease of access plays a crucial role, inventors that did not take part in the discovery appear more likely to draw their knowledge from firms rather than from the “Ivory Tower.”


Geographic Localization of Knowledge Spillovers: Evidence from Knowledge Twins (work in progress)

I investigate current debates about the extent to which knowledge spillovers are localized. Using citations of 275 twin papers in the patent literature, I can identify the extent to which inventors are more likely to draw on scientific knowledge that emerged within closer geographic proximity—while keeping the discovery constant. Early results indicate that knowledge spillovers are localized not only at the country level, but also very strongly at the metropolitan area level.


In the Shadow of Uncertainty: Entrepreneurial Strategy and the Selection of New Projects (work in progress)

I explore how entrepreneurs exploit uncertainty to compete against incumbents in pharmaceutical R&D. Using instances in which the same discovery is made simultaneously in an entrepreneurial venture and at a large firm, my preliminary results indicate that entrepreneurs tend to disengage from projects involving too little uncertainty for fear of competition with companies that have much greater resources. On the other hand, larger firms tend to reject ideas with high uncertainty, providing space for young firms to grow, “sheltered from competition” by this very uncertainty.