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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Prizes for Basic Research –Human Capital, Economic Might and the Shadow of History


This paper studies the impact of global factors on patterns of basic research across countries and time. We rely on the records of major scientific awards, and on data dealing with global economic and historical trends. Specifically, we investigate the degree to which scale or threshold effects, and path dependency account for countries share of major prizes [Nobel, Fields, Kyoto and Wolf]. We construct a stylized model, predicting that lagged relative GDP of a country relative to the GDP of all countries engaging in basic research is an important explanatory variable of country’s share of prizes. Scale effects imply that the association between the GDP share of a country and its prize share tends to be logistic -- above a threshold, there is a “take off” range, where the prize share increases at an accelerating rate with the relative GDP share of the country, until it reaches “maturity” stage. Our empirical analyses confirm the model’s predictions, showing the non linear effects of GDP shares on prize shares, effects that are consistent with the prominence of scale effects. We validate these findings by examining the massive destructions associated with the two World Wars. With more recent data, we document the growing importance of countries that used to be at the periphery of global research, possibly advancing towards the take off stage.

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