What happened to all the great scientific breakthroughs?
Miracle vaccines. Videophones in our pockets. Reusable rockets. Our technological bounty and its attendant vagueness of scientific advancement seem undeniable and unmatched. Yet analysts are now reporting that the overall pace of real breakthroughs has dropped dramatically over the past nearly three-quarters of a century.
This month in the journal Nature, the report’s researchers explained how their study of millions of scientific papers and patents shows that researchers and inventors have made relatively few breakthroughs and innovations compared to the mountain. growing scientific and technological research in the world. The three analysts found a steady decline from 1945 to 2010 in disruptive discoveries as a share of the booming business, suggesting that today’s scientists are more likely to step forward than make intellectual leaps.
“We should be in a golden age of new discoveries and innovations,” said Michael Park, author of the paper and doctoral candidate in entrepreneurship and strategic management at the University of Minnesota.
The new finding by Mr Park and his colleagues suggests that investments in science are caught in a spiral of diminishing returns and that quantity in some ways outweighs quality. Although not addressed in the study, it also raises questions about the extent to which science can open up new frontiers and maintain the kind of audacity that unlocked the atom and the universe and what can be done about it. move away from pioneering discovery. Previous studies have found slowdowns in scientific progress, but generally with less rigor.
Dr. Park, along with Russell J. Funk, also from the University of Minnesota, and Erin Leahey, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, based their study on an improved type of citation analysis that Dr. Funk helped design. In general, citation analysis tracks how researchers cite published work from each other in order to separate brilliant ideas from unexceptional ones in a system inundated with articles. Their improved method broadens the analytical field.
“It’s a very smart move,” said Pierre Azoulay, professor of technological innovation, entrepreneurship and strategic management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I got dizzy when I saw it. It’s like a new toy.
Researchers have long sought objective ways to assess the state of science, which is seen as vital to economic growth, national pride and military strength. It has become more difficult to do so as the number of published articles has soared to over a million per year. Every day it’s more than 3,000 papers – in every way an indecipherable blur.
Defying the surge, pundits debated the value of progressive steps versus “Eureka!” moments that change everything we know about a field.
The new study could deepen the debate. A surprise is that discoveries hailed by the public as groundbreaking are seen by the authors of the new study as often representing little more than routine science, and real breakthroughs as sometimes missing entirely from the conversation.
For example, the main breakthrough on the study’s list of examples is an advance in gene splicing that is little known to the popular science community. It allowed foreign DNA to be inserted into human and animal cells rather than bacteria. The New York Times referenced it in a 1983 four-paragraph memo. Even so, the exploit produced a series of rewards for its authors and their institution, Columbia University, as well as nearly $1 billion in licensing fees, as it lifted biotech operations around the world. entire.
By contrast, analysts would see two of this century’s most famous discoveries as representing triumphs of ordinary science rather than edgy leaps. The mRNA vaccines that successfully combat the coronavirus are rooted in decades of inglorious labor, they noted.
Likewise, the observation of gravitational waves in 2015 – subtle ripples in the fabric of spacetime – was not an unanticipated breakthrough, but rather the confirmation of a century-old theory that took decades of hard work. , testing and development of sensors.
“The disruption is good,” said Dashun Wang, a Northwestern University scientist who used the new analytical technique in a 2019 study. “You want novelty. But you also want everyday science.
The three analysts discovered the trend of gradual progression by using the improved form of citation analysis to examine almost 50 million papers and patents published from 1945 to 2010. They looked at four categories – life sciences and biomedicine, physical sciences, technology and social sciences – and saw a steady decline in what they called “disruptive” discoveries. “Our results,” they wrote, “suggest that slowing disruption rates may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology.”
Their new method — and citation analysis in general — derives its analytical power from the requirement that scientists cite studies that helped shape their published findings. Beginning in the 1950s, analysts began counting these citations in order to identify important research. It was a sort of scientific applause meter.
But the count could be misleading. Some authors cite their own research quite often. And science stars could get plenty of citations for mundane discoveries. Worse still, some of the most cited papers turned out to involve tiny improvements in popular techniques widely used by the scientific community.
The new method takes a deeper look at quotes to more effectively separate day-to-day work from real breakthroughs. It tallies citations not only of the research reviewed, but also of previous studies it cites. It turns out that prior work is cited much more often if the discovery is routine rather than groundbreaking. The analytical method transforms this difference into a new lens on the scientific enterprise.
The measure is called the CD Index after its scale, which ranges from consolidating to disrupting the body of existing knowledge.
Dr Funk, who helped design the CD Index, said the new study was so computationally intense that the team sometimes used supercomputers to analyze the millions of data sets. “It took about a month,” he said. “This kind of thing was not possible ten years ago. It’s just now at your fingertips.
The new technique has helped other researchers, like Dr. Wang. In 2019, he and his colleagues reported that small teams are more innovative than large ones. The discovery was timely as scientific teams over the decades grew into larger and larger groups of collaborators.
In an interview, James A. Evans, a University of Chicago sociologist who co-authored this paper with Dr. Wang, called the new method elegant. “He came up with something important,” he said. Its application to science as a whole, he added, suggests not only a declining return on investment, but a growing need for policy reform.
“We have extremely orderly science,” Dr Evans said. “We bet with confidence on where we invest our money. But we don’t bet on fundamentally new things that have the potential to be disruptive. This document suggests that we need a little less order and a little more chaos.
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