Researchers at Duke Kunshan and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have revealed a link between pollution and innovation that could have profound implications for environmental and economic policymaking.
Their study, published in The Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, connected falling levels of patents, an indicator of innovation, with poor air quality, based on vast amounts of data collected from across China.
“This demonstrates a potential benefit of tighter regulation on pollution, which could have an economic as well as a health impact,” said study co-author Jingbo Cui, an associate professor of applied economics at Duke Kunshan University.
Cui worked with professors Shaoqing Huang and Chunhua Wang, from the Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, on the project. They were supported by DKU undergraduate Wanlin Bai (Class of 2026), and postgraduates Zhijie Zhou and Jiahuan Li (both from the international Mater of Environmental Policy program, Class of 2023). The team used data from 12.8 million patent applications in China and measured it against recordings of minute particle air pollution with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less (PM2.5).
The data for their study was collected from four main sources, including patent information from China’s State Intellectual Property Office and pollution data from weather stations, the China City Statistical Yearbook and satellite-based recordings. They also conducted a series of robustness checks on their results, including excluding outliers and using alternative measures of pollution and innovation.
They found that annual fluctuations in these minute airborne particles, which can get deep into the lungs and on occasion into the bloodstream due to their size, coincided with a drop in patents of 1.1% between 2006 and 2010, while improved air quality from 2011 to 2015 saw an increase in patents by around 2%. The research suggests that a one μg/m3 increase in the annual average PM2.5 concentration would decrease patent counts by 1.3%.
Previous studies have shown a link between exposure to pollution and levels of anxiety and depression, as well as lack of sleep and lower academic performance. These are all factors that could impair the creative thoughts, innovation and ultimately inspiration that leads to new patents, which psychological and cognitive studies suggest are more likely when a person is mentally and physically relaxed, according to the paper.
The paper also revealed that China’s innovation policies, including investment in research and development, tax incentives and subsidies, have leaned disproportionately towards areas with higher levels of air pollution, which could have diminished their effectiveness.
“The findings have profound implications for academics and policymakers when discussing innovation and environmental policies, both in China and overseas,” said Cui.
“For example, some developing countries are hesitant to tighten environmental regulations for fear of hindering development,” he added. “Our results suggest the opposite could well be true – that tighter regulations may help to drive innovation and therefore economic growth.”