Teacher-directed scientific change: The case of the English Scientific Revolution

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Long Abstract

The production of ideas in science is crucial for human progress and economic growth. However, there is little consensus on whether universities were crucial for the birth and rise of the Scientific Revolution in early modern Europe. The question is crucial for our understanding of the origin of the Scientific Revolution, but also for the interplay between forces of tradition and innovation in the production of new knowledge. This paper studies the teacher effect on students’ future research at the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge during the time of the English Scientific Revolution. It shows that innovative teachers publishing in the fields of the Scientific Revolution made their students more likely to publish in the same fields and to have more innovative papers within the field. The findings show that the English universities were important for the intergenerational transmission of frontier knowledge within the fields of the Scientific Revolution.

The paper introduces a novel dataset on the universe of all 111,242 students at English universities in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. It then matches university students and university teachers to published works in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) for the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Based on the subject classification entries from the ESTC, the paper uses machine learning techniques to assign topic headings to all titles within the ESTC. The paper further introduces a novel measure calculating a title’s innovativeness based on natural language processing techniques. The paper further matches students and teachers to membership lists of the Royal Society capturing the institutional aspect of the new science in England.

The paper finds a strong effect of teachers publishing in the fields of the Scientific Revolution on their students picking up the same field as well as producing more innovative publications within the field. Causality is inferred through using a natural experiment based on the expulsion of old fellows and intrusion of new fellow following the English Civil War. The paper further introduces a shift-share type of instrument that predicts students’ choice of colleges based on the historically strong local links between colleges and English regions. Overall, the paper shows that the English universities were important for inspiring the next generation of English scientists. With this, it adds another dimension to the literature on the Great Divergence by highlighting the importance of the design and practise of knowledge transmission within institutions of higher learning.

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Julius Koschnick
Julius Koschnick
PhD Student

I am a PhD student at the Department of Economic History at the London School of Economics. I am on the job market this year. My research interests include long-run growth, human capital, knowledge transmission, and natural language processing.