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Measuring the impact of innovation at Northwestern

New project will be a systematic effort to paint a coherent picture of University’s research progress

innovation
The work will identify key drivers of innovation on campus.

Work is underway to quantify and predict the impact of innovation at Northwestern by gathering data from a variety of sources, tracking measures such as grant proposals, funding and possible commercialization in the form of patents or startups.

Leading the work is Dashun Wang, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and the founding director of the Center for Science of Science and Innovation (CSSI).

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to apply our expertise to better understand Northwestern, the very institution that supported and nurtured our work in this area, and hopefully we can contribute insights that can give Northwestern a competitive edge in the global innovation landscape,” Wang said.

While research and discovery remain strong pillars of Northwestern’s strategy, attracting a record-setting $887.3 million in funding for fiscal year 2020, insights have yet to be uncovered to determine the key drivers of innovation on campus and to ensure that the University investment drives its competitiveness in the long run.

The initial pilot phase is supported by a private gift from the Future Wanxiang Foundation, led by Board of Trustees member Pin Ni.

“There is a significant runway for growth in innovation at Northwestern, and I hope that through this work we will be able to uncover new possibilities to advance the impact of our research on society at large,” Ni said.

The data science team, led by Wang, will embark on a multi-year, multi-stage effort to establish a systematic, quantitative framework capturing the overall lifecycle of innovation at Northwestern. This lifecycle includes proposing ideas, getting funding, initial basic research, patenting and real-world applications. The resulting framework aims to help Northwestern leaders better understand the University’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as identify innovation opportunities.

The first step of the project will be to integrate data from a variety of internal University sources. Datasets across several offices and departments on campus currently capture a focused view of one or more parts of the innovation lifecycle such as grants or patents. This project will be the first systematic effort to bring those sources together, painting a coherent picture of Northwestern’s research progress.

CSSI was launched at Kellogg in 2019 with the goal of uncovering patterns of scientific innovation and identifying the underlying conditions of success. This multidisciplinary field known as the “science of science” capitalizes on rapid developments in the areas of data science, network science, machine learning and artificial intelligence, helping tell a complex, yet insightful story about how scientific progress is made.

Previous research led by Wang showed the career patterns of Nobel laureates and revealed how early setbacks in one’s professional journey could lead to more success in the long run, as long as one keeps trying.

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