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The Burden of Knowledge and the 'Death of the Renaissance Man': Is Innovation Getting Harder?

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  • Benjamin F. Jones
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    Abstract

    This paper investigates, theoretically and empirically, a possibly fundamental aspect of technological progress. If knowledge accumulates as technology progresses, then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden. Innovators can compensate in their education by seeking narrower expertise, but narrowing expertise will reduce their individual capacities, with implications for the organization of innovative activity - a greater reliance on teamwork - and negative implications for growth. I develop a formal model of this "knowledge burden mechanism" and derive six testable predictions for innovators. Over time, educational attainment will rise while increased specialization and teamwork follow from a sufficiently rapid increase in the burden of knowledge. In cross-section, the model predicts that specialization and teamwork will be greater in deeper areas of knowledge while, surprisingly, educational attainment will not vary across fields. I test these six predictions using a micro-data set of individual inventors and find evidence consistent with each prediction. The model thus provides a parsimonious explanation for a range of empirical patterns of inventive activity. Upward trends in academic collaboration and lengthening doctorates, which have been noted in other research, can also be explained by the model, as can much-debated trends relating productivity growth and patent output to aggregate inventive effort. The knowledge burden mechanism suggests that the nature of innovation is changing, with negative implications for long-run economic growth.

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    Bibliographic Info

    Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 11360.

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    Date of creation: May 2005
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    Publication status: published as Jones, Benjamin. "The Burden of Knowledge and the 'Death of the Renaissance Man': Is Innovation Getting Harder?" Review of Economic Studies 76, 1 (January 2009): 283-317.
    Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:11360

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    1. Benjamin F. Jones, 2005. "Age and Great Invention," NBER Working Papers 11359, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    9. Paul M Romer, 1999. "Endogenous Technological Change," Levine's Working Paper Archive 2135, David K. Levine.
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    Cited by:
    1. Manuel Trajtenberg & Gil Shiff & Ran Melamed, 2006. "The "Names Game": Harnessing Inventors' Patent Data for Economic Research," NBER Working Papers 12479, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Dinopoulos, Elias & Segerstrom, Paul, 2006. "North-South Trade and Economic Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 5887, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    3. Rachel L. Ngai, 2007. "An R&D-based Model of Multi-sector Growth," 2007 Meeting Papers 349, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    4. Berliant, Marcus & Fujita, Masahisa, 2009. "The dynamics of knowledge diversity and economic growth," MPRA Paper 16475, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. Gustafsson, Peter & Segerstrom, Paul, 2006. "Trade Liberalization and Productivity Growth," CEPR Discussion Papers 5894, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    6. Benjamin F. Jones, 2005. "Age and Great Invention," NBER Working Papers 11359, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Gevel, A.J.W. van de & Noussair, C.N., 2012. "The Nexus between Artificial Intelligence and Economics," Discussion Paper 2012-087, Tilburg University, Center for Economic Research.
    8. Grant C. Black & Paula E. Stephan, 2010. "The Economics of University Science and the Role of Foreign Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars," NBER Chapters, in: American Universities in a Global Market, pages 129-161 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Simon Wiederhold, 2009. "Government Spending Composition in a Simple Model of Schumpeterian Growth," Jena Economic Research Papers 2009-101, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, Max-Planck-Institute of Economics.
    10. Katharina Frosch, 2009. "Do only new brooms sweep clean? A review on workforce age and innovation," MPIDR Working Papers WP-2009-005, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany.
    11. Benjamin F. Jones, 2008. "The Knowledge Trap: Human Capital and Development Reconsidered," NBER Working Papers 14138, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. L. Rachel Ngai & Roberto M. Samaniego, 2006. "An R&D-based model of multi-sector growth," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 3527, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.

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