Recently I came across an interesting paper, which caught my attention as I was questioning the ‘reason’ I must dedicate so much of my life, just to reach (not even push forward) the frontier of knowledge and research. In this paper by Jones (1995) the exact question is addressed and scrutinized in a theoretical and empirical manner. Apart from my personal pondering on the need to dedicate more or less all my youth to become a researcher, why should anyone care about this?
Innovation and knowledge is an integral part of growth theory and hence the understanding of the well-being of our economy. Jones makes very important observations in his paper. First is that we are not born at the frontier of knowledge, that is, when we are born in to the world we must attain education to start contributing to the knowledge stock. Second, is that the knowledge frontier if shifting over time, making it harder to for people to reach it and potentially innovate.
With regard to Jones’ first observation, in many endogenous growth models, knowledge contributes to output and growth of the economy just like capital, hence the name ‘human capital’. However, it is crucial to realise the inherent difference in physical capital stocks and human capital stocks. Physical capital can easily be transferred from person to person or from generation to generation through property rights. To the contrary human capital does not enjoy this flexibility, humans absorb information at a limited rate and knowledge depreciates overtime (probably at a quicker rate than any other long-run asset!) and it totally disappears when we die unless we have transferred in successfully to another individual.
The second observation highlights getting to the frontier of knowledge and ultimately contributing to the stock of human capital. As the stock of knowledge accumulates over time, the future generations of innovators have a higher mountain to climb in order to pour what they have to contribute, at the top of the mountain. Over time this mountain should only get higher and higher.
How should we deal with this increasing “burden of knowledge” (as mentioned in the title of the paper)? Firstly, one can simply spend more time being educated before they start contributing, secondly each individual can specialize and then contribute though collaborating with specialists from other areas. Now it is obvious why such a personal quarter-life crisis-ish question is so important for all of us. The phenomenon of knowledge accumulation and the ever harder-to-reach frontier has serious consequences on people’s work vs. study decisions and how projects for research and innovation are organized.
Is there any evidence of this phenomenon having real effects? Jones has managed to capture some interesting changes empirically. As mentioned above, we would expect educational attainment and specialization to increase. Also we should see that the time it takes for a new innovation should increase. Jones provides studies that find co-authorship in academic literature has increased, including physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, and economics (the measure of teamwork has increased 17% per decade). There is also evidence that the age at which individuals complete their doctoral program has risen across all major fields from 1967-1986 (National Research council, 1990). Also, he finds that the average age of Nobel Prize winners have risen by about 6 years on the course of the 20th century.
Next time you are pulling an all-nighter to get that assignment or essay done, don’t wonder why our generation must work so hard, it is all because of the previous giants that poured piles of innovation and knowledge into the stock. We in the 21st century need to make a contribution, but must study, study, and study some more. Furthermore we also need to be sociable since teamwork is so important. Ok, now let’s get back to work!
Jones, Benjamin F., The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder? (January 2009). Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 76, Issue 1, pp. 283-317, 2009
National Research Council, On Time to the Doctorate: A Study of the Lengthening Time to Completion for Doctorates in Science and Engineering, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1990.