WP 20-46/R – Does social distancing harm innovation? Nonpharmaceutical interventions adopted during the 1918 flu pandemic did not cause local declines in patenting. Instead, NPIs may have preserved other inventive factors.
A previous version of this working paper was originally published in December 2020.
Does social distancing harm innovation? We estimate the effect of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — policies that restrict interactions in an attempt to slow the spread of disease — on local invention. We construct a panel of issued patents and NPIs adopted by 50 large U.S. cities during the 1918 flu pandemic. Difference-in-differences estimates show that cities adopting longer NPIs did not experience a decline in patenting during the pandemic relative to short-NPI cities and recorded higher patenting afterward. Rather than reduce local invention by restricting localized knowledge spillovers, NPIs adopted during the pandemic may have preserved other inventive factors.