Realizing the Benefits of Delay

Just because a research program is justified does not imply that it needs to be begun today. In some cases, it will be preferable to delay the start of a research program. By delaying, the researchers incur a cost, namely, the expected delay in payoffs from the research program. But there are benefits as well, since the research funds are available for other uses. A key question is how much it will delay the payoffs from a particular RPA to postpone the initiation of the project by one year, for example.

Given the rapid improvement in biotechnologies—and especially in tools and techniques—it would seem to make sense for researchers to postpone many research projects with the expectation that projects deemed "difficult" today might become very tractable in a few years. The effort exerted today may prove in a few years to be wasted, if new techniques allow researchers to find shortcuts.

A relevant question for the Rockefeller Foundation rice biotechnology program is whether there would have been any great cost associated with starting the program five years later. If the research had begun in 1998 instead of in 1988, how long would it have taken to "catch up"? Would the costs of delay have been outweighed by the benefits of having extra research funds to use for a decade?

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