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From Keeping 'Nature's Secrets' to the Institutionalization of 'Open Science'

  • Paul A. David

March 2001 “Open science" as a practise became increasing widespread in Europe during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It represented a departure from the previously dominant ethos of secrecy in the pursuit of Nature’s Secrets, and its emergence was a distinctive and vital organizational aspect of the Scientific Revolution. The development of norms of disclosure and demonstration, and the rise of “cooperative rivalries” in the revelation of new knowledge, constituted a functional response to heightened asymmetric information problems that had been posed for the Renaissance system of court-patronage of the arts and sciences. Pre-existing informational asymmetries had been exaccerbated by the claims of mathematicians and the increasing practical reliance upon new mathematical techniques in a variety of “contexts of application.” In late Renaissance Europe, the feudal legacy of fragmented political authority had resulted in relations between noble patrons and their savant-clients that resembled the situation modern economists describe as "common agency contracting in substitutes" -- competititon among incompletely informed principals for the dedicated services of multiple agents. These conditions not only induced the formation of mechanisms enabling would?be clients to build public reputations for scientific expertise and credibility, but also tended to result in more favorable contract terms (especially with regard to autonomy and financial support) for the agent?client members of western Europe's nascent scientific communities. Foundations were thus laid for the later seventeenth and eighteenth century institutionalization of the open pursuit of scientific knowledge under the auspices of State-sponsored academies. Rather than being a novel departure induced by the needs of the new style of inquiry, those institutional developments continued a broader intellectual and cultural movement that had been underway in Europe outside the medieval universities. This had manifested itself in the formation of myriad academies that were the precursor form of the private scientific societies that appeared under elite patronage early in the seventeenth century. The ethos and norms of disclosure, and the characteristic supporting institutions of modern, publicly funded open scientific research are, in an important sense, independent historical legacies; they were not derivative from the epistemological aspects of the Scientific Revolution, although to a considerable degree they have been responsible for the successes that “the scientific method” has achieved in the production of reliable knowledge. The fragility of these cooperative features of “the R&D infrastructure” needs to be keep in mind by science policy makers. Working Papers Index

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Paper provided by Stanford University, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 01006.

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Date of creation: Mar 2001
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Handle: RePEc:wop:stanec:01006
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  1. Dasgupta, Partha & David, Paul, 1985. "Information Disclosure and the Economics of Science and Technology," CEPR Discussion Papers 73, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  2. Lecuyer, Chrisotphe, 1998. "Academic Science and Technology in the Service of Industry: MIT Creates a "Permeable" Engineering School," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 28-33, May.
  3. Kenneth Arrow, 1962. "Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention," NBER Chapters, in: The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity: Economic and Social Factors, pages 609-626 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Paula E. Stephan, 1996. "The Economics of Science," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 34(3), pages 1199-1235, September.
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