Editor's Note: Today's academic scientists are being asked more frequently than in the past to defend the value of their research. And the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge, once accepted at face value as positive objectives within a democratic society, are no longer good enough, by themselves, to justify scientific investigations. Politicians and the public now demand to know what they are getting for their money, and the most satisfying answers tend to be couched in terms of economic payoff to the citizenry as well as the creation of a more skilled labor force.

For a long time, nobody was able to quantify the impact that academic research was having on the industrial sector. Enter Edwin Mansfield, a professor of economics and director of the center for economics and technology at the University of Pennsylvania. In the mid-1980s, Mansfield decided to tackle the problem. Within a few years, he and...

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