Attention, star scientists: Pierre Azoulay is watching you. Not literally, of course: Azoulay, an economist, inhabits an office tucked away in the MIT Sloan School of Management, far from any lab. But his forte is original research about how life scientists work — or, more precisely, what makes them work well. Which kinds of grants lead to the most creative scientific research? When elite scientists die or switch jobs, what happens to the output of their former colleagues and co-authors?
Information about those questions is just not readily available. Except to Azoulay: The hard numbers supporting his findings come from a unique database charting the careers of 12,000 scientific stars, which he has painstakingly built up over nearly a decade in collaboration with Joshua Graff Zivin, an economist at the University of California at San Diego. The database paints a kind of pointillist picture, with statistical dots representing those star scientists: It’s a complete record of their jobs, awards, patents, papers, their papers’ citations and more. If a life scientist has achieved almost any measure of acclaim in the United States during the last half-century, Azoulay knows about it. “In some sense I have a dossier on each of them and have become intimately familiar with all of them,” says Azoulay, a voluble Frenchman who talks about his own work with good-humored detachment. “I am a glutton for punishment in terms of data. I have never done a project that uses readily available data.”