Sebastian Hoenen: How NSF rotators induce performance improvements for their colleagues

In this paper we empirically study whether scientists who move out of academia temporarily affect the ability of their colleagues to attract research resources. In doing so we are the first to exploit the rotation program at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Under the rotation program NSF employs scientists who step out of their academic institution for a period of usually 1 to 2 years to lead the peer review process at the agency.

The question we pose is whether, upon return, rotators cause scientists in their academic unit, with whom they are not collaborating with, to increase their NSF funding. Empirically, we analyze the growth of NSF funding with a difference-in-difference estimation. Scientists in academic units with a returning rotator are the treatment group. To populate the list of scientists in the control academic units we implement Coarsened Exact Matching on an unusually comprehensive hand-collected dataset. The estimates reveal causal evidence that rotator’s colleagues with no NSF funding in the ex-ante period raise close to $120,000 more than similar scientists in similar academic units who do not have a rotator as a colleague in the ex-post period. This effect is stronger when the rotators are helpful and have a long tenure at their institution.

A series of interviews with rotators and with faculty members as well as numerous tests that rule out competing explanations suggest that knowledge transfer from the rotator including hints on topics NSF is keen on funding and guidance on available but difficult to detect opportunities drives the results.