In new research, David Audretsch, Christian Fisch, Chiara Franzoni, Paul P. Momtaz, and Silvio Vismara find that the decline of academic freedom over the last decade has had a deleterious impact on innovation, as measured by the quantity and quality of new patents.
According to Michael Polyani, academic freedom is characterized by “the right to choose one’s own problem for investigation, to conduct research free from any outside control, and to teach one’s subject in the light of one’s own opinions.” Over the last century, liberal democracies have championed academic freedom to unleash the full creative potential of science. For example, in 1946, Oppenheimer, quoting Fermi, declared that “an intensive freedom of the individual scientific worker […] is the only way to insure that no important line of attack is neglected,” adding that “a too-strict organization is liable to stifle the imagination.” Yet, global academic freedom declined in the last decade after many years of steady improvement.
Although this decline is concerning for multiple reasons, in our recent study, we focus on the tangible costs that it may impose on technological change and inquire if diminished academic freedom hinders the inventiveness of those countries burdened by a deterioration in academic freedom.
Freedom, more generally, has been recognized as a source of growth since the beginning of modern economic thought. Free-market societies develop faster because freedom spurs innovation. Institutions that allow for free cooperation and competition promote knowledge production and exploitation. Independence from authority and hierarchy fosters an atmosphere of information exchange and tolerance to failures that spurs idea circulation, experimentation, diversity, and creativity, all ultimately inducing innovation. Academic freedom is similarly embedded in the norms of science, along with other cornerstones of science, such as disinterestedness, open disclosure, and freedom of critique. These norms are key to promoting the kind of unconditional exploration that fuels science and would not be possible in the private sector, because highly uncertain economic returns and limited appropriability discourage profit-oriented researchers.
Academic freedom is waning
To gain insight into the decline of academic freedom, we use the 2022 release of the Academic Freedom Dataset from the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg, the primary and most credentialled international source providing an explicit measurement of the concept of academic freedom. The Academic Freedom Index (AFI) is a country/year metric of academic freedom provided in the 0–1 range, for 175 countries over more than 120 years. The AFI is obtained by aggregating the independent opinions of more than 2,000 country experts, who are usually academics based in the countries. The experts are asked to consider de facto states of five key indicators: freedom to research and teach, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy of universities, campus integrity (intended as freedom from surveillance and harassment in campuses and digital learning platforms), and freedom of academic and cultural expression. The independent expert opinions are calibrated and aggregated by point estimates drawn from a Bayesian factor analysis aimed at minimizing potential biases due to multiple-raters and issues of consistency across countries and years.
In the last decade, worldwide academic freedom has declined by an average of -0.034. To gain additional insights, we focus temporarily on the top 25 leading countries in all sciences. These 25 countries exhibited very heterogeneous levels of AFI in 2021. High levels of AFIs (>0.75) are registered in Western Europe, Israel, North America, Australia, and South Korea. Low levels (<0.25) are registered in Iran, China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In between are Japan (0.69), Brazil (0.39), Russia (0.33) and India (0.31). Looking at the AFI in the same 25 countries ten years earlier (2011), we see that academic freedom improved only in South Korea (+0.07). Fourteen countries remained stable and ten countries experienced a decrease in academic freedom by more than 0.02. Academic freedom plummeted dramatically in the last decade in Brazil (-0.56), Turkey (-0.43), India (-0.39), and Russia (-0.25). Decreases were also exhibited in the USA (-0.15), the UK (-0.13), and China (-0.12). The average level of AFI in the 25 countries increased by +0.42 from 1941 (0.38) to 2001 (0.80), plateaued around 2002–2007, then decreased by about -0.10 from 2008 to the present. The level of academic freedom registered in 2021 by the 25 leading countries (0.70) is equivalent to that of 1985.
Threats to academic freedom in recent years have come from three main sources. First, some countries have regulations that allow political power to exert direct control over universities. For example, in China, all department chairs and deans are centrally appointed, and a regulation that mandates all departments have a leader appointed by the Chinese Communist Party has been enforced since 2013. Second, interest groups moved by moral, religious, or ideological agendas voice concerns and attack professors on social media for their opinions, research, or teaching in controversial areas. Examples include stem cell research, the use of animal models, and, more recently, views on the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, in some countries, the pursuit of for-profit opportunities in higher education institutions is progressively shifting the governance structures of academia, away from the collegiate model and toward a managerial model, which is more akin to a corporate research culture. This may induce academics to conform to institutional priorities and to eschew research themes that may be disliked by powerful donors and constituents, thus constraining research exploration.
Diminished academic freedom hinders innovation
Our study examines the effect of changes in academic freedom on innovation output, as represented by patents. Patent data are drawn from PATSTAT, the most comprehensive database on worldwide patent activity maintained by the European Patent Office. We measure innovation quantity by the number of patent applications filed in a country/year and innovation quality by the number of citations received by the patents of a country/year in the first 3 years after issuance. The final dataset comprises information on 62.8 million patent applications and 36.8 million citations related to the 157 countries for which the AFI is available in the time window 1900–2015.
The association between AFI and innovation quantity and quality is strong: A one standard deviation increase in academic freedom translates into 300 more patent filings and 50 more patent citations per one million inhabitants. A series of models to assess the causal impact of academic freedom on innovation quantity and quality found that we are able to explain four-fifth and two-thirds of the country-year level variation in patent quantity and quality, respectively.
Academic freedom progressively increased from the 1940s to the 2010s, but it has since reversed and started to decline in the last decade, both at the global level and in the 25 leading countries in science. Our analyses show that academic freedom has a causal impact on innovation. Based on the estimates, the global decline in academic freedom that occurred in the last decade has resulted in a global loss quantifiable in the range of 4.0 to 6.7% fewer patents filed and 5.9 to 23.5% fewer patent citations.
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