February 9, 2023

Miracle vaccine. Videophones in our pockets. Reusable rockets. Our technological wealth and its associated scientific progress blur seem undeniable and unparalleled.However, analysts are now Report The overall pace of real breakthroughs has declined precipitously over the past nearly three quarters of a century.

Published this month in the journal Nature, the report’s researchers tell how their study of millions of scientific papers and patents shows the breakthroughs made by researchers and inventors compared to the world’s growing scientific and technological research. and relatively little innovation. From 1945 to 2010, the share of disruptive discoveries among booming ventures declined steadily from 1945 to 2010, a trio of analysts found, suggesting that today’s scientists are more likely to make incremental advances than take intellectual leaps.

“We should be in a golden age of discovery and innovation,” said Michael Parker, an author of the paper and a Ph.D. student in entrepreneurship and strategic management at the University of Minnesota.

The new findings by Mr. Park and his colleagues suggest that scientific investment is caught in a spiral of diminishing returns, where quantity outweighs quality in some ways. While not addressed in the study, it also raises questions about the extent to which science can break new ground and maintain that courage to unlock the atom and the universe, and what can be done to address the gaps from groundbreaking discoveries. change.Earlier research has pointing to slow down In scientific progress, but usually less rigorous.

Mr. Park, along with Russell J. Funk, also of the University of Minnesota, and sociologist Erin Leahey of the University of Arizona, based their research on an enhanced citation analysis developed by Dr. Funk. help designIn general, citation analysis tracks how researchers cite each other’s published work as a way of distinguishing clever ideas from mediocre ones in a system rife with papers. Their improved method expanded the scope of the analysis.

“It’s a really smart metric,” said Pierre Azoulay, a professor of technological innovation, entrepreneurship and strategic management at MIT. “I was giddy when I saw it. It was like a new toy.”

Researchers have long sought objective ways to assess the state of science, seen as crucial to economic growth, national pride and military might.As the number of published papers soared to more than one million per year. More than 3,000 papers are published every day—an illegible blur by any standard.

In response to surges, experts debate the value of incremental progress versus “I figured it out!” Changes all known moments of a field.

The new study may deepen the debate. One surprise, according to the authors of the new study, is that discoveries that are generally hailed as groundbreaking often represent nothing but conventional science, and that real leaps are sometimes completely lost in the conversation.

For example, the number one breakthrough on this list of research examples is the advancement of gene splicing, about which popular science knows very little. It allows foreign DNA to be inserted into human and animal cells, not just bacterial cells. The New York Times mentioned it in a four-paragraph note in 1983.Even so, this feat owes much to the author, his institution, Columbia University, and nearly $1 billion As it boosted biotech businesses around the world, so did the rise in licensing fees.

By contrast, analysts would argue that the two most famous discoveries of this century represent triumphs of ordinary science rather than avant-garde leaps. They point out that the success of mRNA vaccines against the coronavirus is rooted in decades of prosaic toil.

Likewise, the 2015 observation of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime—was not an unforeseen breakthrough, but the confirmation of a century-old theory that required decades of effort, testing and sensor development.

“Disruption is good,” said Dashun Wang, a scientist at Northwestern University who used the new analytical technique in a 2019 study. “You want novelty. But you also want everyday science.”

Three analysts identified trends of incremental improvement when they scrutinized nearly 50 million papers and patents published between 1945 and 2010 using enhanced forms of citation analysis. They looked at four categories — life sciences and biomedicine, physical sciences, and technology and social sciences — and found a steady decline in what they called “disruptive” discoveries. “Our results,” they write, “suggest that the slowdown in the rate of disruption 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 research that contributes to their published discoveries.Beginning in the 1950s, analysts start statistics These citations serve as a way of identifying important research. This is a scientific applause table.

But counts can be misleading. Some authors frequently cite their own research. Science stars can garner numerous citations for humble discoveries. Worst of all, some of the most-cited paper results involved tiny improvements to popular techniques widely used by the scientific community.

The new method digs deeper into citations to more effectively separate routine work from real breakthroughs. It counts not only the citations of the analyzed study, but also the citations of previous studies it cites. It turns out that previous work gets a lot more citations if the discovery is routine rather than groundbreaking. Analytical methods translate this difference into a new perspective on the scientific enterprise.

This measure is called disc index Depending on its size, it ranges from consolidating to disrupting existing bodies of knowledge.

Dr Funk, who helped design the CD index, said the new study was so computationally intensive that the team sometimes used supercomputers to process the millions of data sets. “It took about a month,” he said. “This kind of thing wasn’t possible 10 years ago. It’s only now within reach.”

The new technique has helped other researchers, including Dr. Wang. In 2019, he and his colleagues reported that small teams are more innovative than large ones. The discovery is timely, as the makeup of scientific teams has shifted over the decades to increasingly larger groups of collaborators.

In an interview, James A. Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who co-authored the paper with Dr. Wang, called the new approach elegant. “It brings up some important things,” he said. Its application across the sciences shows not only a declining return on investment, but also a growing need for policy reform, he added.

“Our science is very well organized,” Dr. Evans said. “We’re confident in where we’re investing. But we’re not betting on something fundamentally new with disruptive potential. This paper shows that we need a little less order and a little more chaos.”

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