How much money we should devote to scientific research is a fiercely debated topic in Washington as well as state capitols and universities throughout the country. Critics of increased funding argue that the return-on-investment for marginal research projects is zero. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, for example, publishes an annual compilation of alleged boondoggles, such as a $856,000 grant supposedly meant to study whether mountain lions can be taught to use treadmills.

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Research by Harvard’s Haris Tabakovic and Chicago Booth’s Thomas Wollmann, however, rejects these claims. To study the impact of research expenditure on scientific productivity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, Tabakovic and Wollmann look to an unlikely source: the variation in expenditures created by unexpected college football outcomes. A winning team, they find, predictably sells more tickets and merchandise and attracts more donations, and some of that money turns into funding for scientific research.

“A large portion of this revenue is plowed back into the athletic department, but a sizable part is returned to the school’s general account in the form of unrestricted funds,” the researchers write. “Football team performance affects cash flow to the university and, in turn, the funds available for research.”

Tabakovic and Wollmann wanted to know how unexpected shocks to a university budget would affect science output, so they calculated the amount of cash a school might wind up with if its football team had a better-than-expected season. The researchers looked at 40 teams ranked in the Associated Press’s Top 25 college football poll from 1987 to 2011 to see how movement in the polls affected science output. A team ranked 17th in the preseason would need about 1,000 more votes throughout the year from the poll’s 60 or so sportswriters and broadcasters to move to No. 1 in the final rankings. An unranked team would need about 1,000 more votes to wind up at No. 10 at the end of the season, Tabakovic and Wollmann calculate.

Those 1,000 votes, they find, led to $3.5 million–$4.5 million in school-funded science research grants—and 125 published articles in STEM fields, which accrued 3,400 citations from other scientists. That research typically results in between two and three patents that the university can license to businesses and that generate about $315,000 per year for the school. This translates to a total return-on-investment of between six and 10 percent.

“These findings reject the claims of those opposing investments in STEM field university R&D, who argue that even if these expenditures produce ‘paper’ output, i.e. articles and patents, they would not generate genuinely useful innovations,” they write.

And the research adds a new dimension to a Saturday afternoon, where in addition to pride and bragging rights on the line, a football game could be tied to the next scientific breakthrough.

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