We are an information-driven generation that is curious about the science behind everything. A simple Google search yields articles explaining masculinity, flat tires, jet lag, beauty, and so on. The National Institutes of Health alone contains 21 separate institutes dedicated to researching everything from the science of sleep to health disparities in minority groups.

A new Kellogg School of Management center, however, is turning the scientific lens on scientists themselves. Funded by the Department of Defense, the Center for the Science of Science and Innovation (CSSI) launched on Sept. 19. Its goal is to study how scientific innovation and breakthroughs happen nowadays, as well as to inform the decision-making process around scientific methods and relationships.

Researchers at CSSI collaborate during a meeting in the Kellogg Global Hub. Photo courtesy of the Kellogg School of Management

Benjamin Jones, CSSI advisory board member and professor at Kellogg, said the center works to make the scientific innovation more efficient. At its core, CSSI is interdisciplinary, combining social and lab sciences to study everything from creativity in psychology to market outcomes in economics. Scientific innovation, Jones said, is seen by economists as a public good, which is why studying it could have long-lasting implications for our economy’s well-being.

One of Jones's most recent studies examined every new business from the U.S. within the past 10 years, and how old each founder was when they began their ventures. Researchers then assessed the company’s growth. Jones said that while venture capitalists and the general public tend to assume that young entrepreneurs create the highest-earning businesses, the study revealed that the most successful entrepreneurs were typically in their mid-40s.

“It’s a simple example where you take enormous amounts of data, attack it with basic computation and in this case reveal facts that really make us think more carefully about where big ideas come from,"  Jones said. "When people are productive in their life, who we should be backing."

Ten out of the 27 total Kellogg researchers work in the center, said Assistant Director of Administration Krisztina Eleki. In addition, several graduate student fellows work on CSSI projects out of Chambers Hall, which also houses Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO). Yian Yin, a McCormick Ph.D. candidate in the industrial engineering and management science department, is studying outcomes of innovation. Yin has found that the difference between “successful” and “unsuccessful” people is small but crucial.

“People who eventually succeeded and people who did not are not very different at the beginning,” Yin said. “It’s really the way they learn from their past failures that divides them into two groups. Think about ice and water at zero degrees. If you drop a little bit, it’s ice, and if you increase a little bit, it’s water. So this fundamental difference is similar to what we find, that at the learning strategy threshold a little above and a little below can set two people apart.”

Lu Liu, a visiting predoctoral fellow at Kellogg, is also working on CSSI projects. She examines the differences and similarities between scientists and creatives such as film directors. To Liu’s surprise, both scientists and artists shared a pattern that their most famous works were temporally clustered.

Having just started her position earlier in October, Eleki says she is looking forward to seeing what the center has to offer moving forward.

“I get excited about the center itself, that it’s something new," Eleki said. "I can be here from day one and help establish the field of science of science and the center itself."