The intellectual benefits of bullet trains

From “The Role of Transportation Speed in Facilitating High Skilled Teamwork”

High skilled workers gain from face to face interactions. If the skilled can move at higher speeds, then knowledge diffusion and idea spillovers are likely to reach greater distances. This paper uses the construction of China’s high speed rail (HSR) network as a natural experiment to test this claim. HSR connects major cities, that feature the nation’s best universities, to secondary cities. Since bullet trains reduce cross-city commute times, they reduce the cost of face-to-face interactions between skilled workers who work in different cities. Using a data base listing research paper publication and citations, we document a complementarity effect between knowledge production and the transportation network. Co-authors’ productivity rises and more new co-author pairs emerge when secondary cities are connected by bullet train to China’s major cities.

Which attracted this comment from someone using the handle “Pedantic Blithering Idiot”:

In the famous paraphrasing of Max Planck- science advances funeral by funeral. To overturn old ideas it is often necessary for new ideas to have an incubation period among a relatively isolated group of highly talented people. If all the universities of the world were to relocate to Amsterdam the initial effect might be positive but it seems probable that a kind of group-think consensus would form up around old ideas and stagnate. (Is that finally happening in Silicon Valley?) The balance between concentration and dispersal of talent is complex involving many factors on a case by case basis. Many have tried to recreate the Silicon Valley success in some form or another, no one quite succeeds as well. In cultures where there is more conformity, where the nail that stands out gets hammered down, the tendencies toward group-think stagnation is likely to be greater which would suggest advising a balance favoring dispersal- small clumps of isolated groups, might work better for scientific advancement. In the short run I’d expect an increase in technical expertise as China finishes playing catch-up in technology (if it hasn’t already) and distributes technical knowledge more thoroughly throughout it’s regions, but it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if the long term effect of high-speed rail in China is negative for science production, and then for innovation and patents.

HT to Tyler Cowen