SIEPR Policy paper No. 03-039
Patronage, Reputation, and Common Agency Contracting in the Scientific Revolution:
From Keeping ‘Nature’s Secrets’ to the Institutionalization of ‘Open Science’

Paul David
August 2004

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 more favorable contract terms (especially with regard to autonomy and financial support) for the agent-client members of the nascent scientific communities. This left the new scientists better positioned to retain larger information rents on their specialized knowledge, which in turn tended to encourage entry into the emerging disciplines. They also were thereby enabled collectively to develop a stronger degree of professional autonomy for their programs of inquiry within increasingly specialized and formal scientific academies which, during the latter seventeenth century, attracted the patronage of rival absolutist States in Western Europe.

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