The spillover effect

It has become universally accepted that scientific discovery on the whole has a catalyst effect on the diffusion of wider knowledge. The exact mechanisms through which science so profoundly stimulates knowledge flow, however, remains rather ambiguous.

by Jasjit Singh, Olav Sorenson
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

In this working paper, INSEAD Assistant Professor of Strategy Jasjit Singh and Professor Olav Sorenson of the London Business School ponder whether the observed knowledge diffusion commonly associated with science-based innovation stems from the "norm of openness" and related incentives for publication. Or, alternatively, is the greatest force for such diffusion one of scientists maintaining dispersed but substantial social networks that more indirectly facilitate the dissemination of what has come to be widely viewed as 'tacit knowledge'?

The authors consider the so-called 'norm of openness', a mechanism that has attracted wide scholarly attention. Unlike the majority of commercially motivated inventors, both scientists' reward systems and common values tend generally to compel them to share gained knowledge: "As a result, public science presumably benefits society by generating a high level of knowledge spillovers which ... increases the efficiency of research ... and may also stimulate innovation and economic growth."

Favouring the norm of openness school of thought, Singh and Sorenson focus on patent citation patterns in tracking knowledge flows. Their findings reveal that science-based innovations overwhelmingly diffuse more widely, even after taking into account the underlying social networks of researchers, as measured using data obtained through the authors' prior collaborations.

With their own findings strongly supporting the vital importance of publication, they consider the general expectations of sociologists regarding the relationship between social network-based and broadcast-based diffusion. Their findings indicate that social networks do not, in fact, confer an advantage in accessing published knowledge. This serves to call into question the extent to which the diffusion of tacit knowledge should, on the whole, rightfully be regarded as being in any way under the "control" of its source or sources.

Singh and Sorenson conclude: "the existence of tacit knowledge and the need to access it through face-to-face contact, has been used to interpret a wide range of results .... Our results, however, suggest that science allows people with the appropriate training to interpret and use published knowledge without having to rely upon (localised) social networks for access. In short, "science ... appears to facilitate the codification of knowledge. Our findings therefore support the idea that much uncodified knowledge may simply remain so because the costs of codification exceed the benefits for the holders of it."

Their working paper ends with brief considerations as to why private sector firms choose to invest in basic scientific research, and whether developing countries should overtly stimulate the growth of indigenous scientific communities.

INSEAD 2006 

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