It’s a common question for us all. You’ve heard it. You’ve asked it. It’s often a useful way of jumpstarting conversation.
It was also commonly asked of us when I served on the program staff of a major conservative philanthropic foundation, in both professional and social settings. The questioners, whether existing or would-be grantees or peers in grantmaking, usually wanted to know what was “hot” in public-policy research, either to mimic or improve upon it. The underlying premise: “What’s new is good and worth pursuing.”
Sometimes, however, one would think: “We’re working for a conservative foundation. Why the emphasis on, and passion for, the new?”
Now a new study casts doubt on whether “new” is always better, even if you’re trying to break new ground. In a fascinating April article in Science Advances by four Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems researchers, we learn about “theories of knowledge development” that offer “different answers to the questions about where,” chronologically speaking, “one will find the most fruitful information.”
Should you, in other words, search for old or new sources of knowledge if you’re trying to make a breakthrough of your own?
“One school of thought argues that older work, benefiting from the test of time, is most likely to provide the building blocks of new work, an idea reflected in Isaac Newton’s famous remark, ‘If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,’” write Satyam Mukherjee, Daniel M. Romero, Ben Jones, and Brian Uzzi.
“By contrast, Robert Merton’s births of time theory suggests that recent information drives breakthrough ideas,” they continue. Cognitively, people turn to the new first. The information age, and the technology driving it, emphasize novelty. Information-retrieval systems rank the recent, along with the popular, more highly than older knowledge. Newness correlates with advancement, according to the theory.
To help determine where breakthroughs in knowledge come from, the Northwestern researchers examined citations in all 28,426,345 papers in the humongous Web of Science citation-indexing service from 1945 to 2013, as well as all 5,382,833 patents granted in the United States from 1950 to 2010. Then they defined papers and patents with the highest impact as those that yielded the top five percent of citations in their field.
They found: 1.) the highest-impact papers and patents themselves cite literature whose average age is low (i.e.,it’s relatively new knowledge); but, 2.) the highest-impact papers and patents also have citations to literature with a “high age variance,” meaning the papers and patents are citing lots of old knowledge, too — more of it, in fact, than most papers and patents with less impact. In this second finding, you see the metaphorical shoulders on which Newtown stood. As the researchers put it, high-impact papers and patents are lodged “in a citation ‘hotspot.’”
The hotspot is nearer to the shoulders on which we stand than the new to which we’re so drawn. It respects the past more.
Papers in this hotspot refer to “recent ideas in the literature and ideas of a relatively wide variation of age …, which reaches well into the past,” according to the researchers. On the other hand, “papers that center their references on new knowledge” have a “surprisingly low rate of impact that rarely exceeds what is expected by chance.” Plus, “the hotspot is nearly universal in all branches of science and technology.”
“Beyond science and technology, work in progress indicates that the hotspot also reflects the relationship between past and future knowledge in law,” the researchers note. “Supreme Court rulings in the United States, Canada, and India that are in the hotspot are overrepresented among the most influential laws.”
It would be very difficult to actually quantify the degree to which knowledge development in philanthropy has a similar hotspot, a similar equilibrium between the quest for novelty and respect for knowledge from the past. Philanthropists, philanthropies, and their professional staffs don’t write papers whose citations are indexed. Larger philanthropies may have internal documents like reports, memoranda, and correspondence that — if even made available — could be evaluated for their inclusion of old knowledge, but these would be more in the nature of “snapshots” than methodologically solid findings from a massive database.
Still, it’s well worth wondering whether a hotspot of knowledge, old and new, exists on which to base effective philanthropic decisionmaking. If this hotspot exists, then philanthropic foundations should more highly value their own institutional memories, and try harder to manage the knowledge they generate – including knowledge generated by past failures.
For older “legacy” foundations, of course, “donor intent” should always be the lodestar, but grantmaking knowledge developed since the demise of the donor would still matter. As HistPhil readers well know, there’s great benefit to be derived from libraries and archives. Foundations should have, and use, them. Programmatically, patience might be more present. Particular projects might last a little longer, to be able to develop helpful knowledge on which to act in the future.
And if a grantmaking hotspot has a significant role for past knowledge, then newer donors should perhaps try more aggressively to learn from that past knowledge — even if they have to go humbly to other donors who might have made their money in other ways, or the philanthropic entities spending those other donors’ wealth.
If the Northwestern researchers are right and a good knowledge-development hotspot accords more value to the old than we might expect in our constant search for novelty, then all givers should perhaps be a little more leery of relying upon that which might be too enticing: What’s new.
This post originally appeared on HistPhil, a web publication on the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector. It is published here with the publication's and the author's permission.