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Are Big Cities Still A Primary Engine For Scientific Innovation?


It used to be that if you wanted to be an inventor or a scientist, it helped to be around other inventors and scientists, which could mean working at one of a handful of elite universities in a big metro area. New research questions whether big cities are still a primary engine for innovation. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam sat down with our colleague David Greene to explain what they found.



GREENE: So do big cities still matter?

VEDANTAM: I don't think they matter as much as they once did, David. And this is interesting because, you know, the idea that a concentration of people who do similar thing can produce benefits, this has been a big idea for a long time. Economists sometimes call this agglomeration. Movie studios set up shop in Hollywood. Publishing houses set up shop in New York. Think tanks come to Washington, D.C. I was speaking with Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford University, and he explained to me why agglomeration works.

JAY BHATTACHARYA: Groups of people who are thinking about similar things, when they get together they're much more productive than if they were not together. Probably the prototypical example of this is the Manhattan Project, you know, which brought all the physicists together in the desert to work on one problem. They could hear about new ideas more quickly. They could fight with one another over, like, what the right way to go is.

GREENE: Sounds like it makes sense, but you're suggesting that that's not as important as it used to be.

VEDANTAM: It appears that when it comes to invention and to scientific innovation, it's not as important as it used to be. Bhattacharya and his colleague Mikko Packalen analyzed millions of patents issued between 1836 and 2010, David. And what they wanted to see is how often a patent cited other recent breakthroughs. In other words, how often does a patent build on new ideas?

GREENE: Which would happen if people, you know, who are applying for patents had gotten advice from other people in the same city.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And what they found is that for a very long time living in a big city allowed you access to the latest ideas. You were more likely to be on the cutting edge if you happened to be in close proximity to others who were on the cutting edge. But that seems to have changed now.

BHATTACHARYA: The scientists that are trying out the newest ideas no longer tend to concentrate in big cities. The advantage of living in a big city that used to pertain basically since the 1880s all the way through the 1980s, that advantage has collapsed in the 2000s. Scientists and inventors working in small cities are trying out new ideas at the same rate as scientists working in larger cities.

GREENE: Is this because scientists can just communicate with one another on the Internet and via new technology and don't have to be in the same place?

VEDANTAM: I think clearly that's a big part of it, David. Bhattacharya, for example, lives in California. His co-author lives in Canada. It used to be that that kind of collaboration was really challenging. There are still advantages, of course, to being down the hall from someone. But there are all kinds of ways now that we have to be connected.

GREENE: Yeah, there have to still be advantages. I mean, Hollywood is still Hollywood. Silicon Valley is still Silicon Valley. I mean, there have to be some good reasons to being there.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think there are. Bhattacharya is not saying there are no advantages to agglomeration. If you want to get cast in a movie, it really helps to be living in Los Angeles. If you're a writer, it helps to be in New York. What this study is looking at is one very specific thing and that's invention - scientific innovations. And it's speaking, what I think, is a very encouraging argument. You don't have to be living in Boston or New York or Los Angeles to be on the cutting edge. You could be a scientist working in a small city - and not just a small city in the United States - and you can have a big effect on the direction of your field.

GREENE: Which might open the scientific world up to new ideas if there are more places where things can be invented.

VEDANTAM: Absolutely right, David.

GREENE: All right, thanks, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. He is also the host of the new podcast "Hidden Brain." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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