Historical Origins of “Open Science”

11 November 2008 at 10:02 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

An interesting piece on science and patronage by Paul David, with a comment by Ken Arrow:

The Historical Origins of “Open Science”: An Essay on Patronage, Reputation and Common Agency Contracting in the Scientific Revolution

Paul A. David, Stanford University & The University of Oxford

This essay examines the economics of patronage in the production of knowledge and its influence upon the historical formation of key elements in the ethos and organizational structure of publicly funded “open science.” The emergence during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries of the idea and practice of “open science” was a distinctive and vital organizational aspect of the Scientific Revolution. It represented a break from the previously dominant ethos of secrecy in the pursuit of Nature’s Secrets, to a new set of norms, incentives, and organizational structures that reinforced scientific researchers’ commitments to rapid disclosure of new knowledge. 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 the claims of mathematicians and the increasing practical reliance upon new mathematical techniques in a variety of “contexts of application.” Reputational competition among Europe’s noble patrons motivated much of their efforts to attract to their courts the most prestigious natural philosophers, was no less crucial in the workings of that system than was the concern among their would-be clients to raise their peer-based reputational status. 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” — competition among incompletely informed principals for the dedicated services of multiple agents. These conditions tended to result in contract terms (especially with regard to autonomy and financial support) that left agent client members of the nascent scientific communities better positioned to retain larger information rents on their specialized knowledge. This encouraged entry into their emerging disciplines, and enabled them collectively to develop a stronger degree of professional autonomy for their programs of inquiry within the increasingly specialized and formal scientific academies (such the Académie royale des Sciences and the Royal Society) that had attracted the patronage of rival absolutist States of Western Europe during the latter part of the seventeenth century. The institutionalization of “open science” that took place within those settings is shown to have continuities with the use by scientists of the earlier humanist academies, and with the logic of regal patronage, rather than being driven by the material requirements of new observational and experimental techniques.

See also this and this on science funding. And of course Hayek’s Counter-Revolution of Science (free full text!) should be consulted.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Innovation, Institutions, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael F. Martin  |  11 November 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Arrow’s comment is shocking! Basically, we’ve got an admission that we might need to add something to the rational hypothesis to account for the behavior of scientists, artists, and mathematicians. Wow.

  • 2. spostrel  |  12 November 2008 at 6:15 pm

    The role of the amateur or self-funded aristocratic scientist seems to be vastly underrated in the abstract and in Arrow’s comment. Think about Boyle or Newton, for example. Up until the early 20th century, much pure science was funded out of the pockets of the scientist. (There were also many in-between cases of courtier-scientists, who were paid not so much for the science we remember today but for demonstrations and practical schemes that amused or profited their patrons. For these types, their science was subsidized by the work that got patronized, and so was effectively self-funded.)

    This distinction matters a great deal, because the traditional norms of science make a lot of sense for a community of curiosity-driven researchers seeking both to impress their fellows and to get useful ideas from their fellows. With self-funding by curiosity and recognition-driven researchers, self-interested decisions about which results to believe, what claims to advance, and what studies to perform internalize most of the social costs and benefits.

    The need to attract outside funding creates a number of agency problems and weakens the effectiveness of these norms (although of course outside funding makes it possible to research a vastly greater range of subjects). It’s a bit like the problem of the public corporation vs. private owners–you gain a lot in terms of raising capital, undertaking large investments, and increasing professionalism, but you take on some big incentive problems.

  • 3. Rafe  |  12 November 2008 at 6:41 pm

    On the contribution of the self-funded aristocracy, see the role of Banks as the patron of Charles Darwin. See also the role of Murchison, a geologist who became a prime mover in the committees that guided research and exploration before the state got involved. http://www.amazon.com/review/R2FWTX4IBWQFYV/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

    In his youth Murchison might well have been voted the least likely of his contemporaries to succeed in the life of the mind. At school he was a dreadful student and he turned to a military career. This helped to prepared him for his ultimate vocation because at military college he studied topographical appraisal and draughtsmanship, two of the vital skills for geological fieldwork. He served in the Spanish campaign against Napoleon but the end of hostilities in 1815 destroyed his hopes for military glory. Relegated to a backwater in Ireland he diverted himself with riding, hunting, drinking bouts and visits to London where he paraded as a dandy. He also attended lectures by Sir Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institute for Science.

    This unlikely combination of activities won him the hand in marriage of a cultured lady, Charlotte Hugonin, only daughter of a wealthy general. She encouraged him to develop more refined interests in the course of a prolonged Continental tour. He undertook prodigious walking expeditions and showed a keen eye for country and a willingness to describe it in detail. Back in England he reverted to fox hunting on his country estate until the problem of debt and a partridge shooting expedition with Sir Humphrey Davy inspired him to turn to Science….

    For many years he was on the council of the Royal Society, also he was a trustee of the British Museum and an active office bearer in practically any other society or club that could advance his interests. If the suitable organisation did not exists he created it. He was a founding member of the Athanaeum Club, the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. These societies played a major role in directing scientific work, at a time when government involvement did not go far beyond naval mapping and some surveying for strategic materials during times of war.

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