Did scholars make the West?


Were scientists and scholars crucial to the West’s growth and development? Research at the crossroads of demography, economics, and history got the go-ahead on 31 March, when economist David De la Croix won a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant.

As the humanist, scientific and industrial revolutions took place, was the human capital of scientists and scholars decisive for the emergence of the West? Beginning in 2021, Prof. David De la Croix will dissect the development of human capital in Europe from 1000 to 1800. ‘The concept of human capital corresponds to all the knowledge and capacities that make a person efficient or productive’, he explains. ‘Human capital is accumulated through education and experience, and contributes to growth and development. It differs from physical capital, which includes all of the production goods owned by businesses (such as machines) and which they use to produce goods or services.’ In particular, Prof. De la Croix will focus on two institutions where human capital was deployed: universities (from the 11th and 12th centuries) and scientific academies (in the 17th and 18th centuries).

A database of nearly 1,000 years

To meet this great challenge, he’ll start by building a database of all individuals who were university professors or scientific academy members between 1000 and 1800. ‘We’ve already started this research via secondary sources. Some historians have indeed written books on the history of most universities or about renowned and even unknown professors. We’ll continue to analyse these data, complete the information with encyclopaedia knowledge, and find the publications of people found in the library catalogue.’.

Empirical analysis and food for thought

This titanic work of data collection will give way to empirical analysis by first asking: Why were these people important to the West’s rise? ‘There are already two lines of thought on which I’d like to work. Was there an academic market beginning in the Middle Ages, through which universities competed to attract certain professors? Statistical methods would answer this question. In addition, we already know that among the men, many were university professors from father to son. I’d like to know whether transmission of human capital or nepotism drove this trend.’ Finally, toward the end of his planned five years of research, Prof. De la Croix intends to build on theoretical frameworks, by addressing, for example, whether a university invested more in a scientific field and why. He also plans to model university networks. ‘We could thus see each university’s place in the network, and then address whether there was an effect on productivity or development in the region in question.’

Ambitious goals

As of today, 20% of the data collection has been done, and the two lines of thought are in development, yet the research hasn’t yet officially started. The researcher's goals are ambitious: ‘I don't want to confine myself to famous people or those who have published articles. I also want to find more obscure academics and academicians.’ In total, Prof. De la Croix would like to compile 80,000 people in the database and, of course, use this data to write publications and thus develop specific expertise in long-term human capital.

It’s quite rare to receive an ERC grant at the “advanced” level’, he says (his is the only one in Wallonia this year). ‘Our university receives about one every two years. So it’s a huge opportunity for me!’ The funding is an ‘Advanced Grant’. ‘There are three levels of scholarship depending on the seniority of the scientists: “Starting”, “Consolidator” and “Advanced”.’ This Holy Grail of research is aimed at researchers recognised as exceptional leaders of an exploratory research project, who demonstrate a publications record marked by both quantity and quality over the last ten years. The ERC funds rather fundamental research in all fields of science (human, social, hard) and technology. Prof. De la Croix’s research will officially start on 1 January 2021 and continue for five years; he’ll conduct it independently while travelling to the four corners of Europe to collect data.


Three questions for … David De la Croix

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Prof. David De la Croix offers clarification as both an economist and a citizen.

What’s your analysis of the current situation in the short term?

In the short term, we’ll experience what is known in economics as a ‘productivity shock’. The productivity factors are still there (human capital as well as physical capital), but it has become more difficult to combine them because of the virus. The result is that with the same resources we produce less. For a year, growth will therefore be very negative, but fortunately we know this crisis is temporary.

And in the long term?

In the long term, I think there’ll be more of a positive impact. Just go back to 1348, with the great plague, to illustrate this idea. The plague killed a third of Europe’s population. However, the literature suggests that the episode ultimately led to technological progress. For example, the shortage of people spawned new techniques that were less labour-intensive, such as movable-type printing. I’m therefore convinced that the coronavirus epidemic will lead us to progress in terms of organising remote work and developing new technologies that we don’t yet suspect. History has shown us that great shocks are often vectors of technical progress.

What is your opinion on how the Belgian state is managing the crisis?

I objectively find that the countries which are doing better and are better equipped, like Germany, have a higher employment rate (people who are working among the working age population). I take it that these countries have been able to preserve more public investment over time because there were more people contributing to it through their taxes. In comparison, Belgium in recent decades has invested a lot in social transfers such as early retirement but has invested less in its capital (health, education, and above all justice and transport). Like after the Second World War, when great social progress took place, we may also realise that we must reinvest in the state through public.

Lauranne Garitte

A glance at David De la Croix' bio

David de la Croix is professor of economics at UCLouvain and member of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). He has been a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Aix-Marseille, Nanterre, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Taipei, Rostock, Abu Dhabi and Poznań. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Demographic Economics, published by Cambridge University Press, and has been associate editor of the Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, the Journal of Development Economics, and the Journal of Public Economic Theory.

His research interests cover demographic economics, human capital and growth from the perspective of long-term history and intergenerational conflicts. He is particularly interested in motivations underlying the choices made by households in the present and past. Working with 56 authors, he has published a number of research articles (including in journals such as American Economic Review, The Quartely Journal of Economics, and Review of Economic Studies), as well as a treatise on economic growth co-written with Philippe Michel.

Published on April 02, 2020