Lightening the Burden of Knowledge: How Tools Push Out the Frontiers of Science
Philipp Pfingstag, Aditya Kunjapur, and Joachim Henkel
This paper looks at how tools help scientists push out the frontiers of knowledge. Jones (2009) argued that scientists face a “burden of knowledge,” wherein the increasing amount of knowledge needed to reach the frontier pushes them to ever-longer educations and ever-narrower specializations. This paper argues for a countervailing trend, the development of tools. We argue that tools, defined broadly to include theoretical insights, scientific instruments, etc., increase research productivity by automating knowledge so that scientists can use knowledge more easily. For example, virtually all of the knowledge of how computers work is hidden from typical users, who nonetheless can take advantage of much of what they have to offer.
This paper extends the model of Jones to incorporate tools and show how this impacts long-term growth rates in the economy. We then test this theory in an empirical setting: synthetic biology, where evolving tools are rapidly changing the feasibility and cost of writing DNA sequences. By taking advantage of the exogenous progress in this tool, we produce causal estimates for how much tools help scientists push out the frontier of knowledge. We find that tool-enabled discoveries generate more follow-on research, take inventive steps in more interesting directions, and produce more interest from other scientists.
These findings have important public policy implications, since they suggest that the funding of tool development can help scientists and promote economic growth.