Courtesy of U.S. Agency for International Development

Life scientists are accustomed to thinking about quantifying the products of their knowledge in terms of such things as papers published, discoveries made, or, in the case of applied science, diseases treated. But there is another useful way to think about the value of scientific knowledge, which is as a public good.

The public goods characteristic of ideas and knowledge – that they are freely available to all and are not diminished by use – can be traced to St. Augustine (circa 400). Adam Smith laid the conceptual economic basis for public goods in 1776, but economists did not give much attention to them until the mid-1950s. However, it has been difficult to reduce knowledge to numerical form and measurement, particularly in the basic sciences, so that there is little hard data on the linkage between scientific knowledge and growth.1

Still, it...

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