A silver lining?

In today’s New York Times (online), I have a short piece discussing the prospects for women in the current recession. Recessions are terrible for recent graduates and the evidence I have seen points to it being worse for women even taking into account moves to get further education. It’s all somewhat gloomy.

By coincidence, today I was in a seminar given by Pian Shu (a PhD student at MIT) who presented a paper, “The Long Term Impact of Business Cycles on Innovation.” In the paper, she looked at MIT undergraduates from 1985 to 2005 and examined how their future patenting performance varied depending on the economic conditions at the time they graduated. The story is a good one — at least for patented innovations. MIT graduates in a time of high unemployment produced 5 percent more patents than cohorts who graduated during better times. The likely reason is that the graduates went on to graduate school rather than doing something more financially lucrative and then moving to a patenting firm. In other words, in a cohort, the number of graduates who ended up patenting was similar to other cohorts, it is just that the ‘unlucky’ ones got a head start in innovating. (And this wasn’t from entrepreneurial ventures — it turns out hardly any MIT undergraduates do that right out of school).

Now all this may not translate into income and it may be just substituting patented innovations from other innovations but it is one of the first papers to actually generating something that might look like a silver lining from recessions.

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