Richard R. Nelson (b. 1930) is perhaps the most influential theorist on innovation in the world today. An economist by education he worked for the RAND Corporation – a research arm of the US military – in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period he, among other things, published a series of articles on the economics R&D (Nelson 1959), economic growth and other topics in American (mainstream) economics journals.
Nelson became a professor at Yale University in 1968 and stayed there for twenty years before he moved on to Columbia University. It was during his time at Yale that Nelson together with his colleague Sidney Winter developed a new ‘evolutionary theory of economic change’ which led to a series of articles and a book (with the same name) published in 1982. This new theory, based on a combination of Schumpeter’s work and the behavioural theories of Herbert Simon and others, explains how firms’ ‘organisational knowledge’, consisting of routines that are reproduced and modified through practice, evolves and influences – and is influenced by – economic dynamics at the level of the industry and the entire economy. The book – and the theory – has been hugely influential, but less so in economics than in management, organisational studies and, of course, in innovation studies.
Nelson has also played an important role as a network builder (and leader) within the emerging field of innovation studies, among other things, through his long-time collaboration with other central scholars in this area, such as Christopher Freeman and Nathan Rosenberg, and through a series of international research projects with himself as primus motor (often leading to edited volumes or special issues). It was a project of this kind that led to the second of his most well-known publications, ‘National Innovation Systems’ from 1993, the first book to systematically compare national innovation systems in different countries.
Most important works:
Nelson, R. R. (1959), ‘The Simple Economics of Basic Scientific Research’, Journal of Political Economy, 67 (3) 297-306.
Nelson, R. R. and S. G. Winter (1982), An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press).
Nelson, R. R. (ed.) (1993), National Innovation Systems: A Comparative Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press).