Dimensions of human capital and technological diffusion


We examine the impact of a comprehensive set of measures of human capital on recently created, direct measures of technology adoption using country-level panel data for the period 1964–2003, covering a wide range of technologies in various sectors of the economy. We consider many dimensions of human capital, using both qualitative and quantitative measures, as well as indirect measures that capture the role of “learning by doing” intrinsic to the process of technological diffusion. Our analysis, which examines the human capital and technological diffusion link more comprehensively relative to previous studies, suggests that the link is a conditional one, resting on various aspects of human capital and the nature of the technology in question. Overall, the results suggest that the type of human capital that is formed via the learning-by-doing mechanism may be the most important determinant of technological diffusion, followed by, to a substantially less degree, qualitative determinants such as cognitive skills (measured using test scores) and quantitative or other measures (such as years of schooling and life expectancy). Our conclusions are robust to the inclusion of institutional variables and other factors that determine technological diffusion.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The Cross Country Historical Adoption of Technology (CHAT) data set captures both the extensive and intensive margins of 104 technologies from 8 sectors for a sample of more than 150 countries, over a period of 1800–2000.

  2. 2.

    Our paper complements the earlier work by Cinnirella and Streb (2017) who explore the association between different types of quantitative measures of human capital and technological innovation for Prussia in the late nineteenth century, in addition to “training-on-the-job”, an aspect which our results suggest is a very important determinant of technological diffusion. In addition, our paper relates to the literature on growth and innovations which employs measures of human capital such as educational attainment and knowledge as among key factors impacting upon the innovation process and growth of economies (Drivas et al. 2018; Dakhli and De Clercq 2004; Barro 2001). In contrast, however, we employ qualitative constructs of human capital such as cognitive skills. Furthermore, our analysis is more comprehensive in scope, looking at various direct measures of technologies over time and across countries.

  3. 3.

    This may be justifiable in the sense that the mathematics test consists of basic mathematical knowledge applied to set of analytical problems. The science test, in contrast, is more knowledge specific rather than analytical. Of course, this may be contentious and the reader may not agree with our interpretation. Our choice of the labels “specific” and “generic”, however, proves convenient as well as intuitive in the context of discussing and interpreting the results to follow. Our variable embodying generic skills is a proxy for analytical skills of a very general level.

  4. 4.

    In addition to our reasoning above, Comin et al (2008) suggest that past level of technology adoption is a strong predictor of current levels; as such a dynamic specification is appropriate. In Comin and Hobijn (2004), which to our knowledge is the only other study analyzing the impact of human capital on technology measures based on the CHAT data set, the lagged variable is not considered and the focus is on quantitative measures of human capital such as secondary school enrollment.

  5. 5.

    Comin and Hobijn (2009a, b) refer to the definition of “technology” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It defines technology as “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge”. Given this definition the basic idea behind technological measures in CHAT is to cover these various aspects of technology. For example, it includes the quantity of capital goods required to achieve a specific task (e.g., number of sail ships (measured in tonnage) in use in a country), amounts of times a specific task that have been completed (e.g., metric tonnes of steel produced) and the number of users of a the specific manner in which the task was accomplished (e.g., number of subscribers of cable TV in a household).

  6. 6.

    Comin and Mestieri (2013) use a different theoretical construct for intensive margin of technology in their theoretical framework.

  7. 7.

    Comin and Mestieri (2013) suggest use of population or Gross Domestic Product as scaling factors.

  8. 8.

    As indicated earlier, our sample includes a set of 50 countries and includes both developed and developing countries. Here the choice of countries to illustrate the concept of technological lags is motivated purely by the ease of graphical presentation.

  9. 9.

    We have 21 technologies in our sample, but the tables in the paper include results for 14 technologies while regressions for other technologies are presented in the online appendix. The technologies used are selected from the Comin and Hobijn (2009a, b) paper.

  10. 10.

    For a detailed description of these technologies please refer to Comin and Hobijn (2009a, b) or part A of the supplementary online appendix to this paper.

  11. 11.

    The measure developed in Hanushek and Woessmann (2012) is an extension of Hanushek and Kimko (2000). Details for countries and tests are present in Hanushek and Woessmann (2012). The observations for mathematics and science test scores are sporadically spread across the time period 1963–2003. This is because, firstly, the tests are not conducted every year. Secondly, the countries may not participate in every test that is conducted. Hence, we have missing observations for mathematics and science test scores in our data set. In order to extrapolate observations for these years, we use averages of the available test scores for the countries in our sample.

  12. 12.

    Details of this qualitative measure of education, from Hanushek and Woessmann (2012), are also presented in part A of the online supplementary appendix.

  13. 13.

    It is possible that there are some technologies where other countries could be leaders. However, US leads in most cases and is hence chosen for consistency, as well as comparability with the Comin et al (2008) approach to measure usage lags of technologies.

  14. 14.

    In this estimation procedure, we instrument current variables at time t by their past lags, which eliminates correlation between explanatory variables and the error term. Furthermore, in our GMM estimations the use of these past lags as instruments may (effectively) control for the possible endogeneity of human capital acquisition employed as explanatory variable for adoption and diffusion of technology. However, we do not explicitly control for endogeneity of human capital due to our assumption that it is strictly exogenous, as per the assumptions underlying the difference-GMM approach. Given that the left-hand-side variable is a microeconomic, sectoral variable while our human capital measures are macroeconomic in flavor we believe this is a reasonable assumption. However, we perform robustness checks based on various diagnostic tests and use the system GMM approach of Blundell and Bond (2000) for all cases. The results for these are presented in part B of the online appendix.

  15. 15.

    We obtain data for life expectancy for the years 1964–2003 from World Development Indicators (WDI) of the World Bank (2015). It is measured as life expectancy at birth in total years. See www.worldbank.org for details.

  16. 16.

    We thank two anonymous referees for these suggestions.

  17. 17.

    Comin et al (2008) include technologies such as electricity production, internet, personal computers, telephones, cell phones, cars, trucks, passenger and cargo planes and tractors. We consider a larger set from the updated data set in Comin and Hobijn (2009a, b).

  18. 18.

    A complete sector-wise overview of these results including a larger set of technologies is available on request. The more succinct presentation of these results in the form of tables in the paper does not affect the overall findings and interpretation of the analysis.

  19. 19.

    In the sector-wise analysis, presented in the online appendix, we have 21 technologies each in the mathematics and science panels. The coefficient of mathematics and science skills is significant in 10 and 5 intensity of usage of technologies, respectively. Hence, we could suggest that in a broad sense a labor force embodied with mathematics skills is more suitable for improving the adoption of technology relative to on embodied with science skills. However, there are obvious caveats to such an interpretation as we would expect specialized skills, more directly measured, to impact in sectors where they were relevant. We discuss this caveat in further detail at the end of this section.

  20. 20.

    While such technologies do not require mathematics skills per se, their prevalence requires human capital in the form of qualified technicians and engineers to provide maintenance and technical support service, who are typically endowed with such skills. It is in this sense that we suggest that the generic nature of mathematics skills is relevant. Following Hanushek and Kimko (2000), we interpret these measures as an indirect proxy of the quality of the labor force of an economy.

  21. 21.

    Other factors, such as property rights associated with technological transfer, may be of relevance, as suggested by Spielman and Ma (2015).

  22. 22.

    For example, World Development Indicators (WDI) do not have such indicators for health. However, some country-specific studies do provide this information from their respective national databases (Ceppa et al. 2012).

  23. 23.

    Supplementary appendix B contains descriptive evidence regarding data used for analysis. A complete sector-wise overview of these results including a larger set of technologies is available on request. The more succinct presentation of these results in the form of tables in the paper does not affect the overall findings and interpretation of the analysis.

  24. 24.

    We use a system GMM approach given the persistent nature of the lagged variable; the Sargan test in the difference-GMM approach also suggested inappropriate identifying restrictions.


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We would like to thank Vincent Hoang, Janice How, Sandy Suardi, Shrabani Saha, Peter Siminski and participants at various seminars and conferences for thoughtful discussions and comments. We take responsibility for any errors.


This study is not funded by any grant.

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Correspondence to Radhika Lahiri.

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Asif, Z., Lahiri, R. Dimensions of human capital and technological diffusion. Empir Econ 60, 941–967 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00181-019-01777-3

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  • Cognitive skills
  • Economic growth
  • Educational achievements
  • Educational attainments
  • Human capital
  • Technology

JEL Classification

  • I2
  • O1
  • O14
  • O13