FROM KEEPING ‘NATURE’S SECRETS’ TO THE INSTITUTIONALIZATION OF ‘OPEN SCIENCE’
Paul A. David
All Souls College, Oxford & Stanford University
First draft: 12 January 1998
Second draft: 1 December 2001
This version: 5 December 2003
Forthcoming in CODE: Collaborative ownership and the digital economy
Edited by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, Cambridge MA: MIT Press 2004
An earlier version of this paper was presented to the University of Sienna
Workshop, “Science as an Institution and the Institutions of Science,” held
at the Certosa di Pontignano (nr. Sienna), Italy on 25-26th January, 2002.
The author is grateful for the comments received on that occasion from
Fabio Pammoli, the Workshop’s organizer, and from other participants,
especially Richard Nelson and Keith Pavitt. Many other intellectual debts
that were incurred in the course of research on the larger corpus of work
upon which this paper draws are acknowledged in David (2000).
Contact author during 20.09.2003 – 20.03.2004 at:
Department of Economics
Stanford CA 94305-6072
Tel.: 001+650+723-3710; Fax: 001+650+725-5702
during 21-03-2004 – 20.09.2004 at:
Oxford Internet Institute
1 St. Giles’
Oxford OX1 1JS
Tel.: 0044+(0)1865+287210; Fax: 0044+(0)1865+287211
This essay examines the economics of patronage and the roles of asymmetric information and
reputation in the early modern reorganization of scientific activities, specifically their influence upon
the historical formation of key elements in the ethos and organizational structure of publicly funded
open science. The emergence during the late 16th and early 17th 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. 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.
JEL Classification Codes: L23, N0, P0
Keywords: open science, science and technology policy, “new economics of science,” university-
industry R&D, patronage, asymmetric information, principal-agent problems, common agency,
From Keeping ‘Nature’s Secrets’ to the Institutionalization of ‘Open Science’
Paul A. David
All Souls College, Oxford & Stanford University
In the United States, indeed, throughout the community of industrially advanced nations,
a sense of urgency has surrounded discussions and debates about the organization and funding
of R&D by governments. Surely it is not entirely coincidental that such issues were broached for
serious discussion in the US during the late 1990s against the backdrop of unprecedentedly large
contractions in the projected levels of real federal expenditures for both defence-related and
civilian R&D during 1997-2002.1 Lively debates concerning science policy have erupted in the
US on many previous occasions, but the most recent episode would seem to have been the first
sustained that has seen a fundamental questioning of some of the infrastructure institutions and
organizational commitments that have framed the nation’s science and technology system -- at
least since the major restructuring initiated by the 1945 report of Vannevar Bush.2
Even when the federal funding picture seemed to improve for basic research, opinion-
leaders in the areas of science and education have continued to ask whether American
universities should continue to be supported as the primary sites for conducting basic research in
an “open” fashion which facilitates its close integration with teaching. Some are questioning
whether the emphasis on research is healthy for undergraduate teaching. Others wonder whether
an ‘academic research’ environment is compatible with concurrent efforts to expand the sphere
of collaborative R&D with industry, pro-active forms of “technology transfer,” and to make
more extensive use of intellectual property and other means of establishing a proprietary interest
in the research activities of faculty, staff and students? Might it not be better to hive off both
basic and applied research into specialized institutes, thus resolving conflicts that arise between
the universities’ conduct of their traditional functions and the drive on the part of other
organizations and agencies (both private and governmental) to control information flows in
order to better exploit new findings? Issues similar to those concerning the future role of the
university in the “national innovation system” also have arisen in discussions of moves towards
‘privatizing’ other publicly funded research institutions such as the National Laboratories, and re-
orienting national research institutes towards commercial application of their research output 3
At a time, when the reorganization of national science and technology systems are under
active consideration and the fitness of recent experiments with innovations in institutional
arrangements are undergoing re-assessment, it may be especially useful to look backwards to the
historical circumstances in which some of the basic institutions of science first emerged; and,
equally, and to the economic, social and political forces that have shaped their subsequent
evolution. Economists quite rightly will wish to continue to probe for deeper understanding
of the insides of the ‘black box’ of technology (Rosenberg 1982). But, by comparison with what
has been learned already concerning institutional arrangements and business strategies affecting
corporate R&D investments, and the mechanisms enabling private appropriation of research
benefits, it remains surprising that so much less is known about the economics origins and
effects of the corresponding institutional infrastructures shaping the world of 'academic' science,
and about the organization of publicly supported R&D more generally.
The desirability of closing this particular lacuna in the economics and economic history
literature has been just as evident to those who have noticed it within a broader framework of
concern with the economic analysis of institutions, as to those who have begun to approach that
task by bringing the perspectives and methods of industrial organization economics to bear in
the area of science and technology studies.4 Even before the ‘new economics of science’ had
begun to direct attention to such a program, Douglass North (1990:75) saw a significant
challenge and an promising opportunity in explicit exploration of “the connecting links between
institutional structures...and incentives to acquire pure knowledge."
A variety of historical inquiries may be seen as responses to that challenge, by examining
key episodes in the institutional evolution of 'public science' and its complex and changing
relationship with the other organizational spheres of contemporaneous scientific activity.5 The
latter include, of course, both those in which industrial research was conducted for private
commercial gain under ‘proprietary rules,’ and the 'defence-related' pursuit of scientific and
engineering knowledge under conditions of restricted access to information about basic findings
and their actual and potential applications. Much fascination is imparted to the study of
institutional evolution in that sphere by the complexity of the organizational details, and the high
stakes attached to issues arising from the immediate entanglement of R&D programs and project
with matters of national security; or, alternatively by the strategies and fortunes of business
corporations that turn on the capabilities of their research organizations. Nevertheless, the
historical emergence of the other, academic sphere of research poses a number of questions to
which the answers seem less intuitively obvious and straightforward, and yet critically important
as a guide in the formation of constructive science and technology policies.
Although the conceptualization of science as the pursuit of "public knowledge" and an
object of public-minded patronage today seems a natural, even a ‘primitive’ notion, it is in reality
a complex social contrivance. Moreover, “open science” is a social innovation of comparatively
recent historical origin. This has afforded historians of scientific institutions the archival material
to examine the evolution of its outward forms of support in considerable detail. But the
circumstances and interests that gave rise to this innovation, and their relationship to the
economic forces that have sustained and shaped its subsequent development have not received
the attention that the importance of the subject in the modern world would seem to warrant.
Within university-based research communities, especially, there are recognized norms
and conventions that constitute a well-delineated professional ethos to which scientists generally
are disposed to publicly subscribe, whether or not their own behaviors always conform literally
to its strictures governing the organization and conduct of research. The norms of ‘the Republic
of Science’ that have famously been articulated by the sociologist Robert K. Merton (1973: esp.
Ch. 13; 1986: Pt. III) sometimes are summarized under the mnemonic CUDOS: communalism,
universalism, disinterestedness, originality, skepticism. (See Ziman 1994, p. 177). The
‘communal’ ethos emphasizes the cooperative character of inquiry, stressing that the
accumulation of reliable knowledge is an essentially social process, however much individuals
may strive to contribute to it. The force of the Universalist norm is to render entry into
scientific work and discourse open to all persons of ‘competence’ regardless of their personal
and ascriptive attributes. A second aspect of ‘openness’ concerns the disposition of knowledge:
the full disclosure of findings, and methods, form a key aspect of the cooperative, communal
program of inquiry. Full disclosure, in turn serves the ethos legitimating and, indeed, prescribing
what Merton called ‘organized skepticism’; it supports the expectation that all claims to have
contributed to the stock of reliable knowledge will be subjected to trials of replication and
verification, without insult to the claimant. The ‘originality’ of such intellectual contributions is
the touchstone for the acknowledgement of individual scientific claims, upon which collegiate
reputations and the material and non-pecuniary rewards attached to such peer evaluations are
Whence did we come by this distinctive set of governance norms for the search for
reliable knowledge? How did they become institutionalized as the legitimate ethos -- even where
they are not strictly adhered to in practice – among the class of academic organizations that
flourish in the democratic societies of the modern world? These questions about the nature and
origins of the fundamental lines of cultural and institutional demarcation that distinguish the
sphere of ‘open science’ activities -- supported by state funding and the patronage of private
foundations, and carried on in universities and public (not-for-profit) institutes – form the
central substantive historical problem that I address in this paper.6 It will be seen that, in the
particular answers to which I have been led, there also lies a broader message for contemporary
science and technology policy-making.
The Problem: Why ‘Open Science”?
Judged by historical standards, ‘open science' is a comparatively recent organizational
innovation. Accompanying the profound epistemological transformations effected by the fusion
of ‘experimentalism’ with Renaissance mathematics, the cultural ethos and social organization of
western European scientific activities during the late 16th and 17th centuries underwent a
significant reorganization -- departing from the previously dominant regime of secrecy in the
pursuit of Nature’s Secrets. This development should be seen as a distinctive and vital aspect of
the Scientific Revolution, from which there crystallized a new set of social conventions, incentive
structures, and institutional mechanisms that reinforced scientific researchers' commitments to
rapid disclosure and wider dissemination of their new discoveries and inventions. Yet, the
puzzle of why and how this came about has not received the notice it would seem to deserve,
especially in view of the completmentarities and tensions that are recognized to be present today
in relations between the regimes of 'open' and 'proprietary' science.
Even superficial reference to the antecedent intellectual orientation and social
organization of scientific research in the West suggests the utter improbability of the historical
bifurcation that this involved. For, it saw emerge alongside and in some sense in competition
with the older, secretive search for ‘Nature's Secrets,’ a new and quite antithetical mode of
conducting 'the hunt for knowledge.' Virtually all of the intellectual traditions and material
conditions in the medieval West inveighed against ‘openness’ of inquiry and public disclosure of
discoveries about the natural order of the world, let alone the heavens. Medieval experimental
science, was shaped by a political and religious outlook that encouraged withholding from the
"vulgar multitude” arcane knowledge that might bring power over material things (see Thorndike
1950: vol. II; Eamon 1985, 1994). The imperative of secrecy was particularly strong in the
medieval and Renaissance traditions of Alchemy, where, indeed, it persisted side-by-side with the
emergent institutions of open science throughout the 17th and into the 18th century (see Dobbs
1975, Vickers 1984, Westfall 1980). Social and economic regulations during the Middle Ages,
along with the relatively primitive and costly technologies available for scientific
communications, also reinforced the moral and philosophical considerations arrayed against
open disclosure of discovered secrets. Economic rent-seeking worked in the same direction:
knowledge of recently discovered geographical secrets that were held to be of potential
mercantile value, such as trade routes, would be kept from the public domain. Similarly,
craftsmen normally closely held technological recipes, even when they were not compelled by
guild restrictions to preserve the 'mysteries' of the industrial arts.7
Why then, out of such a background of secrecy and obfuscation, should there have
emerged a quite distinctive community of inquiry into the nature of the physical world, holding
different norms regarding disclosure, and being governed by a distinctive reward system based
upon priority of discovery? Why so? The question is striking especially in the modern context,
where one may see that there is little if any difference between the methods of (scientific) inquiry
used by university scientists working under the institutional norms of open science, and the
procedures that they (or others with the same academic training) employ in the setting of a
corporate R&D laboratory? Can the social organization of open science then be simply an
epiphenomenon of the profound philosophical and religious re-orientations that have been
presented as underpinning the Scientific Revolution, if not the epistemological transformation
that latter had wrought? Or, should the intellectual achievements of that epoch instead be read
as consequences of what might be called the "Open Science Revolution”? To state the problem
more synthetically, is it not plausible that these two discontinuities -- the one taking place in the
social organization of scientific inquiry and the other transforming its intellectual organization --
were interdependent, and entangled with each other in ways that need to be more thoroughly
A start towards answering this question is provided by considering the economic logic of
the organization of knowledge-producing activities, for, it is possible in such terms to give a
complete functionalist account of the institutional complex that characterizes modern science
(see, e.g., Dasgupta and David 1987, 1994 and David 2003). In brief, the norm of 'openness' is
'incentive compatible' with a collegiate reputational reward system based upon accepted claims to
priority; and it is conducive to individual strategy choices whose collective congruence reduces
excess duplication of research efforts, and enlarges the domain of informational
complementarities. This brings socially beneficial ‘spill-overs’ among research programs, and
abets rapid replication and swift validation of novel discoveries. The advantages of treating new
findings as "public goods" in order to promote the faster growth of the stock of knowledge,
thus, are contrasted with the requirements of secrecy for the purposes of securing a monopoly
over the use of new information that may be directly or indirectly exploited to produce goods
and services, or further knowledge.
There is some explanatory insight in the latter, functional contrast between institutional
arrangements that are well suited to maximize of the rate of accumulation of knowledge, on one
hand, and, on the other, social arrangements that suited to maximize a society’s extraction of
economic rents from the existing state, or stock of knowledge. This juxtaposition suggests a
logical basis for the existence and perpetuation of institutional and cultural separations between
two normatively differentiated communities of research practice, the open 'Republic of Science’
and the proprietary 'Realm of Technology’: the two distinctive organizational regimes serve
different and potentially complementary societal purposes.
The foregoing, 'logical origins' style of explanation for the institutions of modern science
(and technology), however, is one in which all details of their historical evolution are ignored.
Such a rationale would seem, at best, to presuppose a form of 'creationist' fiction -- namely that
these arrangements were instituted ab initio by some external agency, such as an informed and
benevolent political authority endowed with fiscal powers. That objection calls for an explicit
examination of the 'historical origins' of the institutions of open science, since these remain
outside the set of 'logical origins" that one arrives at by simply considering the present-day
functional value of an already extant, cooperative mode of scientific research.
The Argument: Noble Patrons, Mathematicians, and Principal-Agent Problems
Rather than trying to construe the reorganization of scientific activities in early modern
Europe as having somehow derived automatically from the intellectual changes represented by
the new style of ‘scientific’ activity, I contend that the historical emergence of the norms of
disclosure and demonstration, and the rise of 'cooperative rivalries' in the revelation of new
knowledge, had independent and antecedent roots. These are to be found in the social and
institutional contexts in which the new breed of scientists of that era were working. My central
thesis here is that the formation of a distinctive research culture of open science was first made
possible, and, indeed, was positively encouraged by the system of aristocratic patronage in an era
when kings and nobles (both lay and ecclesiastical) were immediately concerned with the
"ornamental" benefits to be derived by their sponsorship of philosophers and savants of great
To support this interpretation, I argue that the economic logic of the patronage system in
post-Renaissance Europe induced the emergence and promoted the institutionalization of
reputation-building proceedings, all of which turned upon the revelation of scientific knowledge
and “expertise” among extended reference groups that included “peer-experts.” The
mechanisms involved spanned the range from participation in informal networks of
correspondence, to public challenges and contests, open demonstrations, and exhibitions and the
certification of individuals by co-optation and election to "learned societies.” Patronage,
however, was an old system in the 17th century, and the sponsorship of intellectuals was a long-
standing prerogative and responsibility of Europe's social and political elites. It is necessary,
therefore, explain why something new appeared on the scene; why some of the conventions and
norms now associated with open science -- in particular, the reliance upon peer appraisal and
collective evaluation expressed through the formation of professional reputations -- were
induced in primitive form at this particular juncture in history. The key propositions for this part
of my argument derive from first considering the economics of patronage in general, and then
noticing the specific implications of the newly arising problems of "principal-agent contracting"
that were created by the encounter of the late Renaissance patronage system with the new
(mathematical) form of natural philosophy practised by Galileo, Kepler and their
Aristocratic patronage systems have reflected two kinds of motivation: the utilitarian and
the ornamental. Most political elites, in addition to recognizing some need in their domain for
men capable of producing new ideas and inventions to solve mundane problems connected with
warfare and security, land reclamation, food production, transport facilities, and so forth, also
have sought to enlist the services of those who professed an ability to reveal the secrets of
Nature, and of Destiny. Kings and princes, and lesser nobles too sought to surround themselves
with creative talents whose achievements would enhance not only their self-esteem, but also their
public image -- those aspects of grandeur and ostentatious display that might serve to reinforce
their claims to rightful authority. Thus, poets, artists, musicians, chroniclers, architects,
instrument-makers and natural philosophers found employment in aristocratic courts, both
because their skills might serve the pleasures of the court, and because their presence "made a
statement" in the competition among nobles for prestige. These dyadic patron-client
relationships, which offered the latter material and political support in exchange for service, were
often precarious, uncomfortably subject to aristocratic whims and pleasures, and to the abrupt
termination that would ensue on the disgrace or demise of a patron. Nonetheless, they existed in
this era as part of a well-articulated system characterized by elaborate conventions and rituals
that provided calculable career paths for men of intellectual and artistic talents (see Biagioli 1990,
1993; Moran 1991).
Those motives for entering into a patron's role that reduce to symbolic acts of self-
aggrandizement are here subsumed under the heading "ornamental." Such reasons, however,
should be understood to have been no less instrumental in their nature and roots than were the
utilitarian considerations for the patronage of intellectuals. The public display of "magnificence,”
in which art and power had become allied, was a stock item in the repertoire of Renaissance
statecraft (see Strong 1984). This is significant, because inventions and discoveries that met
utilitarian needs in some instances would have to be kept secret if they were to be most useful,
whereas it is in the nature of the ornamental motive that its fulfilment elicits the disclosure of
new, marvellous discoveries and creations; that the client's achievement on behalf of the patron
be widely publicized. Indeed, it was very much in the interest of a patron for the reputations of
those he patronized to be enhanced in this way, for their fame augmented his own.9 A second
point of significance is that only some utilitarian services but most ornamental services had
"positional" value from the patron's point of view. Although having a skilled artist or a clever
astronomer in one's court was altogether a good thing; it was far better if such clients were
personages of greater accomplishments and renown than those who happened to be in the
service of a rival's court. The pressure on Europe's ruling families to have intellectuals of
recognized eminence in their service was thus exacerbated by the existence of rival rulers and
their courts, and so lent additional strength to the ornamental motives for their patronage of
Into this setting a new element had been interjected during the 16th century. The more
extensive and rigorous use of mathematical methods formed an important aspect of the work of
the new breed of natural philosophers.10 But, one surely unintended side-effect of this
intellectual advance was to render the basis of the mathematically sophisticated savants' claims
and reputations less immediately accessible for evaluation by the elites in whose service they
wished to be employed. The difficulties thereby posed by the asymmetric distribution of
information were rather unprecedented, not having been encountered to the same degree in the
patronage of intellectuals and artists who followed other, less esoteric callings. The new breed of
scientists, however, claimed to specialize in revealing the unfamiliar. Opportunities for
charlatanry here were more rife, and so were the risks of embarrassment for the patron, should it
turn out that one had sponsored a fraud -- or much worse, a heretic. Thus, even where the
services of the mathematically trained intelligencia might be sought for essentially practical,
utilitarian motives (such talents being useful in designing machinery for public spectacles,
surveying and cartography, ballistics and correct use of perspective in pictorial arts), the
soundness of the candidates' qualifications had become more problematic and far from
In other words, this line of argument directs attention to the emergence of especially
compelling reasons for noble patrons in the late Renaissance to delegate part of the responsibility
for evaluating and selecting among the new breed of 'savants', devolving those functions upon
the increasingly formalized communities of their fellow practitioners and correspondents.
Except for those few who were themselves versed in mathematics or other experimental
practices associated with the new learning, patrons were inclined to refrain from passing personal
judgement on scientific assertions and involving themselves in substantive controversies (see
Biagioli 1993). It was left to the initiative of the parties dependent upon such patronage to
organize the production of credible testimonials to their own credibility and scientific status.
Not altogether surprisingly, therefore, the mid-16th century, which is frequently taken as
the beginning of the era of modern mathematics, also witnessed the formation of active
networks of correspondence among Europe's adepts in algebra, announcing newly devised
techniques and results; this era initiated the modern tradition of publicly posing mathematical
puzzles, issuing scientific challenges, announcing prizes for the solutions of problems, and the
holding of open competitions to test the claims of rival experts in the mathematical arts (see e.g.,
Boyer 1985: esp., 310-312; Feingold 1984; Keller 1985). On the interpretation proposed here,
the new practices of disclosure constituted a functional response to heightened asymmetric
information problems that the mathematization of natural philosophy and the practical arts
posed for the Renaissance system of court-patronage.
Rival Principals and Common Agency Contracting--The Legacy of European Feudalism
The conditions I have sketched regarding the late Renaissance and early modern system
of court patronage present a situation economists would describe as "common agency
contracting" involving the competition among incompletely informed principals for the
dedicated services of multiple agents. This correspondence suggests several noteworthy points
about the economic organization of scientific activities in Europe during the late 16th and early
First, since what the scientist-clients had to offer was "novelty,” at any point in time the
welfare of several patrons could not be jointly advanced in the same degree. As a consequence
of the dominance in the early history of modern science of patrons who were concerned with the
ornamental rather than the utilitarian value of scientist-philosophers, the services a client
provided to his several patrons were essentially "substitutes" rather than "complementary"
Second, in the majority of cases the material rewards offered to clients by any single
patron were not sufficiently large and certain to free the former from the quest for multiple
patrons. The situation typically being that of common agency, we may draw on Avinash Dixit’s
(1996) recent theoretical exposition to point out that in the absence of full information, and
concerted action on the part of principals, the nature of the incentive contracts offered by the
latter would reflect their awareness of the possibility that a client/agent could use the means
provided by one patron to serve the ends of another. The resulting Nash equilibrium in the
game among rival principals would then be a set of patronage-contracts that offered clients
comparatively weak material incentives to devote their efforts exclusively to the service of any
one patron. Such an equilibrium outcome, of course, would be consistent with the necessity of
seeking to serve a number of patrons concurrently (however arduous and demeaning a scientist
like Galileo might feel that to be); it would thereby reinforce the choice on the part of would-be
clients of research and publication strategies that would lead towards widening the circle of their
Third, as has been shown by Lars Stole’s (1990) analysis of mechanism design under
common agency contracting, the equilibrium outcome in the case of "contract substitutes” is in
general more favorable to the agent than is the case when the services performed for different
principals are complements. In effect, the competition among patrons to command the faithful
attention of an agent/client would lead to contracts that allowed the latter to retain more "rents"
from the specialized information he possessed. This provided greater rewards for scientific
activities than would have resulted otherwise, were there only a single possible patron on the
scene, or had the patrons predominantly enjoyed positive externalities from others’ support of
the agent’s efforts -- the characteristic situation where there are significant “spillovers” of
utilitarian benefits from new knowledge.
There is in the story related here an historical irony well worth remarking upon, especially
as it serves also to underscore the tenacity of the past's hold on the incrementally evolving
institutions that channel the course of economic change.11 The nub of it is simply this: an
essentially pre-capitalist, European aristocratic disposition to award patronage for the purposes
of enhancing rulers' political powers symbolically (through displays of "magnificence),” came to
confer value upon those who pursued knowledge by following the "new science" in the late 16th
and 17th centuries. The norms of cooperation and information disclosure within the community
of scientists, and their institutionalization through the activities of formal scientific organizations,
emerged -- at least in part -- as a response to the informational requirements of a system of
patronage in which the competition among noble patrons for prestigious clients was crucial.
Those rivalries, in turn, were a legacy of western European feudalism: it was the
fragmentation of political authority that had created the conditions of "common agency
contracting in substitutes." An instructive contrast therefore might be drawn with the alternative
circumstances of a monolithic political system, such as had prevailed elsewhere -- as in the
Heavenly Empire of China during an earlier epoch, to cite a well-known case of a society that
clearly possessed the intellectual talents yet failed spectacularly to institutionalize the practice of
Sequelae: Open Science in the ‘New Age of Academies’
The foregoing necessarily brief treatment of immensely complex matters has focused
upon the economic aspects of patronage in the production of knowledge, and the influence of
the latter upon the historical formation of key elements in the ethos and organizational structure
of open science. Those developments preceded and laid the foundations for the later seventeenth
and eighteenth century institutionalization of the open pursuit of scientific knowledge under the
auspices of State-sponsored academies. The Royal Society of London was founded in 1660 and
received charters from Charles II in 1662 and 1663, and within another few years, in 1666, the
Académie Royale des Sciences was created on the initiative of Colbert. The activities of these
two State foundations, and the ensuing formal institutional ‘reorganization of science’ in Europe
that they inspired, have received much attention from more than one generation of historians of
science.12 Although from some perspectives this concentration of scholarly focus might be
judged inordinate, it may also be justified by the fact that another 70 officially recognized
scientific organizations have been identified by McCllelan (1985) as having been established
between the 1660s and 1793, specifically on the models provided by those archetypal
Just as I have argued in the foregoing text that the intellectual reorientation represented
by the scientific revolution cannot be held to have been a motor cause of the emergence of the
‘open’ mode of searching for Nature’s Secrets, so there are good grounds in the work of other
scholars for resisting the interpretation of the ‘new Age of Academies’ as constituting a radical
organizational departure. Furthermore, there is reason also to contest the view that the so-called
“New Age of Academies” had been called forth by the enlarged scale and costs of the new
modes of scientific inquiry, and the supposed failures of private patronage in the mid-
The post -1660s phase in the evolution of the institutions of modern science is better
viewed essentially as the continuation of a much broader cultural movement that had been taking
place in Europe outside the medieval universities. One aspect of this movement manifested
itself in the appearance, around the turn of the sixteenth century, of numerous privately
patronized scientific societies and ‘academies’. Seventeenth century science proper thus has been
found to have played only a very minor part of that wider intellectual reorganization: of the 2500
learned societies that are known to have been instituted in Europe between 1500 and 1800, at
least 700 were formed during the sixteenth century alone. Although some among these
organizations were scientific in purpose, they were not in the pre-1550 vanguard; according to
McCllelan (1985), the overwhelming majority were formed in response to interests broader than
anything that resembling the organized pursuit of science was.
The following passage from the work of David Lux (1991:pp.189,196) serves well to
articulate the present state of understanding about the nature of the causal relationships in this
complicated sequence of developments:
“[T]he traditional points of departure for discussing organizational change in
science -- della Porta’s Accademia Secretorum Naturae [founded in Naples, 1589] or
Cesi’s Accademia dei Lincei [founded in Rome, 1604] -- offer nothing to suggest
the intellectual novelties of sixteenth-century science produced real organizational
change....Rather than producing organizational change, sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century science followed other intellectual activity into new
organizational forms. Indeed, in strictly organizational terms there is no obvious
justification for attempting to isolate science from other forms of intellectual
activity before the end of the seventeenth century. Nor is there any obvious
justification for portraying science as honing the cutting edge of organizational
change. Despite the literature’s claims about novel science creating needs for new
organizational forms, the institutional history of science across the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries actually speaks to a record in which scientific practice
changed only after moving into new organizational forms.”
Thus, the institutional context provided by the early academies had readily accommodated the
needs for “social legitimization” and, for theatres for disclosures where patronage-seeking
practitioners of the new natural philosophy might enhance their public repute. Subsequently, the
institutionalization of the nascent “open science” mode of organization was carried forward
upon an elevated stage under the aegis of the early modern state, where it mobilized augmented
resources and applied the new methods of scientific inquiry on a scale that eventually altered the
character of scientific practice.
In a still later era, beginning mid-way through the nineteenth century with the
introduction of modern scientific research into the German state-sponsored universities, mimetic
inter-institutional competition created a new set “academic market” conditions that proved
propitious for the establishment of research scientists, and graduate research seminars within the
ambit of the university. In this new setting, the fundamental problems of reputation and agency
-- upon which the foregoing economic analysis has been focused – soon re-emerged in different,
but nonetheless recognizable forms.14 Even today, university patrons, both private and public,
along with academic administrators, and members of the professoriate find themselves
confronted by informational asymmetries, agency problems, and reputational reward
mechanisms that parallel in many respects those that once had characterized the system of
European court patronage.
Some things change, however. As the ornamental value of supporting esteemed scholars
and scientists has given way to the instrumental power of scientific knowledge, the ability of
individual members of “the Republic of Science” to extract a large part of the “information
rents” has been circumscribed; correspondingly, there has been an enlargement of the relative
share of the benefits that flow -- in the form of “knowledge spill-overs” -- to the ultimate
patrons the publicly supported regime of ‘open science. Yet, some continuities are preserved: in
the modern system of devolved patronage of science, those having the responsibility for the
management of academic institutions and non-profit research institutes appear simultaneously in
the roles of agents vis-à-vis the public, and principals vis-à-vis the research agents upon whose
expertise they must rely. In their dual capacities the administrators of academic institutions (and
the individuals who staff them) must continue to seek effective ways of mediating conflicts
between the divergent interests of the principals and their respective agents. On the one hand,
they are enjoined to seek the larger societal, public goals that are best served by preserving the
organizational modes and norms open scientific inquiry; while, on the other hand, they are being
encouraged to try to appropriate a larger portion of the “information rents” for use in more
narrowly parochial institutional and private undertakings – even when to do so entails
circumscribing open access to the new knowledge gained from the research conducted under
The moral of all this goes further than merely providing another attestation to the truth
in the aphorism that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. Some
important part of the power of modern science today derives from the radical social innovation
that the ‘open science’ regime constituted. A corollary proposition, to which the historical
experience recounted here also lends support, is that the methods of modern science themselves
have not been, and still are not sufficient to create the unique cultural ethos associated with ‘the
Republic of Science.’ Nor can they be expected to automatically induce and sustain the peculiar
institutional infrastructures and organizational conditions of the open science regime, within
which their application has proved so conducive to the rapid growth of the stock of reliable
public knowledge, and all that flows therefrom.
Rather than emerging and surviving as robust epiphenomena of a new organum of
intellectual inquiry, the institutions of open science are independent, and in some measure
fortuitous, social and political constructs. They are in reality intricate cultural legacies of a long
past epoch of European history, which through them continues to profoundly influence the
systemic efficacy of the modern scientific research process.
Major features of the institutional infrastructure of public science, thus being to a
considerable degree exogenous to actual scientific practice in the contemporary world, can be
subjected to substantial amounts of experimental tinkering, and even major re-design, without
jeopardizing the methodology of current inquiry. In one sense, this freedom this affords the
manipulation institutional incentives and constraints as instruments of modern science and
technology policy can be read as “the good news.”
It should be taken with a grave caution, however: wise policy-making in this sensitive
area must pay especial heed to those organizational instruments’ own complex and contingent
histories, and so respect the potential fragility of the institutional matrix within which modern
science evolved and flourished. Along with a sense of awe and gratitude for the good fortune of
having received this remarkable gift from the past, we shall do well to maintain a sobering
awareness of the extent to which our future welfare has come to depend upon the continued
smooth workings of an intricate and imperfectly understood piece of social machinery -- one that
need have no adequate capabilities for self-repair, but readily may be damaged by careless
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See Boesman 1997, Koizumi, 1997, and Mowery 1997.
On the Bush Report, the recurring issues in US science policy debates, and the prelude to the recent
discussions, see, e.g., David 1996, Boesman 1997 and references therein.
For entry points to the vast literature, see e.g., David, Mowery and Steinmueller (1994) on
university-industry R&D collaborations; Guston and Keniston (1994) on university relations with the
federal government; Branscomb (1994), Cohen and Noll (1994) on the National Labs.
Within the past decade the situation has begun to change. See Dasgupta and David (1987, 1988,
1994), David (1994), and the more recent surveys by Diamond (1996), Stephan (1996), and David,
Foray and Steinmueller (1997).
See, for a recent effort to bring this historical experience to the attention of economists, the special
session in the American Economic Assocation Proceedings on “Clio and the Economic Organization
of Science (May 1998), which included brief, chronologically ordered contributions by David 1998,
Lenoir 1998, Lécuyer 1998, and Blumenthal 1998.
This paper draws upon David (1997:December), which should be consulted for fuller historical
documentation and references to the relevant literature. Space there also permits proper
acknowledgement of the help of Avner Greif, Mario Biagioli, Partha Dasgupta, Weston Headley,
Scott Mandelbrote, Joel Mokyr, Noel Swerdlow, and many other colleagues, institutions and
foundations who generously contributed both intellectually and materially in support of my researches
in area since 1991. The present essay has benefitted from the comments and suggestions by Kenneth
Flamm, Zvi Griliches and David Mowery, which could not be accomodated within David 1998 -- the
very abridged version read at the January 1998 AEA Meetings in Chicago, and published shortly
thereafter in the AEA Proceedings. . .
From the 14th century to the early 18th century in Europe, the issuance of 'letters patent' and
granting of royal 'privileges' conferring monopoly rights in exchange for the disclosure of
technological information was aimed primarily at effecting the transfer and application of existing
industrial arts and engineering practices, i.e., techniques already known to master-craftsmen and
engineers in other territories; and not at inducing fresh inventive activity. Many early patent
monopolies were, in effect, local franchises designed to shelter immigrating expert-practitioners from
the subsequent competition of the apprentices and journeymen they were expected to train, or others
who would try imitate them once their particular 'mysterie' had been successfully established in the
new cities and principalities to which they were recruited. See David and Olsen (1992), David (1993
a), and sources cited therein.
Galileo’s involvement in the system of court patronage in Italy, and his communications during
1610 with Kepler, then in the service of Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, is documented by Biagioli
(1993), and further considered in David (1997:November, pp.32-36). The situations of many other
notable scientific figures elsewhere in Europe also can be mentioned, e.g. as by Mokyr (1990: p. 73
on Leibnitz; p. 84 on Torriceli; p.169 on Borelli.) See also the extensive discussions in Moran (1991)
on the patronage of science and medicine in the court of Prince Henry of Wales (d.1612) at Richmond
Palace, the Court of Rudolph II and the Habsburg circle in the mid-seventeenth century, the Munich
Court of Ferdinand Maria, the Elector of Bavaria (r. 1654-1679), and elsewhere in Europe.
Galileo understood this well, as was evident from the adroit way in which he exploited his ability to
prepare superior telescopes for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’ Medici: he urged his patron
to present these to other crowned heads in Europe, whereby they too might observe the new-found
moons of Jupiter which the Sidereus Nuncius (March 1610) had proclaimed to be “the Medicean
stars.” See Drake (1957, 1978), Westfall (1985), and Biagioli (1990, 1993: Ch.1).
. Following the fusion of Arabic and classical mathematics, the significance of algebra, the geometry
of conic sections, trigonometry, and still more esoteric developments was recognized and openly
proclaimed in terms that drew upon a rhetorical tradition reaching back to the great Renaissance
mathematician “Regiomontanus” -- as Johannes Muller of Konigsberg (1432-1476) styled himself.
See Swerdlow (1993), Boyer (1985: Ch. XV) on Renaissance mathematics; Keller (1985) on the
program and rhetorical developed on behalf of mathematical training during the 1570's and 1580's;
Feingold (1984:Ch.IV), Westfall (1985), Biagioli (1989, 1990, 1993) on the patronage of
. On the theme of "path dependence" in the dynamics of economic systems, see, e.g. David (1988,
1993b, 1994, 2000) .
See, e.g., Brown (1934/67), Orenstein (1963), Hahn (1971), Hunter (1981), McClellan (1985).
See, e.g., Lux (1991) for discussion and references to the relevant literature.
See, e.g., Ben-David 1991:Ch.8; Lenoir 1998, and references cited therein.