Learning by Seconding: Evidence from NSF Rotators



We study knowledge flows between organizations through secondments, short-term employee assignments at an organization different from the home institution. Secondments allow the sending organization to capture knowledge and network resources from the receiving organization without an organization-level contract, alliance, or co-location, a process we term learning by seconding. We focus on the National Science Foundation’s rotation program, under which the NSF employs academics, called rotators, on loan from their university, to lead peer reviews. We ask how rotators affect the behavior of their academic colleagues after returning from a secondment. Using difference-in-difference estimations we show that rotators’ colleagues raise considerably more research funds than similar scientists from similar departments who do not have a rotator colleague. Additional quantitative and qualitative evidence implies that the treatment effect occurs via knowledge transfer, as rotators help generate ideas, frame proposals, and explain processes, rather than rent-seeking on the part of the rotator. Overall, the results suggest that trust and legitimacy play an important role in organizational knowledge acquisition.