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Understanding the emergence of 'open science' institutions: functionalist economics in historical context

  • Paul A. David

This essay exposes the limitations of the 'logical origins' approach that has found favour among economists who seek to understand the workings of institutions in the past present. It pursues a different approach, applying functionalism in historical context to explain the emergence of the characteristic ethos and institutions of 'open science'. The emergence during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries of the idea and practice of 'open science' represented a break from the previously dominant ethos of secrecy in the pursuit of 'Nature's secrets'. It was a distinctive and vital organizational aspect of the scientific revolution, from which crystallized a new set of norms, incentives and organizational structures that reinforced scientific researchers' commitments to rapid disclosure of new knowledge. To understand how this came about, it is necessary to examine the economics of patronage and the roles of asymmetric information and reputation in the early modern reorganization of scientific activities. The rise of 'cooperative rivalries' in the revelation of new knowledge is seen as a functional response to heightened asymmetric information problems posed for the Renaissance system of court patronage of the arts and sciences; pre-existing informational asymmetries had been exacerbated by increased importance of mathematics and the greater reliance upon sophisticated mathematical techniques in a variety of practical contexts of application. Analysis of the court patronage system of late Renaissance Europe, within which the new natural philosophers found their support, points to the significance of the feudal legacy of fragmented political authority in creating conditions of 'common agency contracting in substitutes'. These conditions are shown to have been conducive to more favorable contract terms (especially with regard to autonomy and financial support) for the agent--client members of western Europe's nascent scientific communities. Some lessons may be drawn for contemporary science and technology policy debates, in which the open science mode of pursuing knowledge often seems to be viewed a robust concomitant of the power of scientific research techniques--whereas it is a fragile cultural legacy of western Europe's history, upon which rests the ascendancy of modern science as a driver of long-term economic growth. Copyright 2004, Oxford University Press.

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Article provided by Oxford University Press in its journal Industrial and Corporate Change.

Volume (Year): 13 (2004)
Issue (Month): 4 (August)
Pages: 571-589

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Handle: RePEc:oup:indcch:v:13:y:2004:i:4:p:571-589
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