Disruptive advancements in science are slowing, new report shows
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We humans have more information than ever before. While you’d think that knowledge would help lead us from breakthrough to scientific breakthrough, it turns out that’s not necessarily the case. There’s been a dramatic slowdown in the number of big scientific and technological innovations over time, according to a new report published in Nature.
Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour wanted to learn more about what’s behind this decline and how we might be able to change it. He spoke with Russell Funk, an associate professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the paper.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sabri Ben-Achour: So why did you decide to look into the speed of scientific advancements in the first place?
Russell Funk: Well, there have been a number of prior studies in this area, first looking at economic growth, then looking at the rate of progress in technology and then a few studies looking at progress in science. And so it’s something that’s been on the radar of researchers and policymakers for a number of years now. But most prior studies have been done on specific areas of science or technology like, ‘how fast are we progressing within semiconductors?’ or ‘within agriculture?’ and so forth. And so what we wanted to do was take a different approach, where we were able to identify kind of a single important metric and then look at the rate of progress across lots of different fields at the same time, and see whether what people had been reporting using the other metrics specific for certain fields was kind of just by chance that they had picked out places where this is slowing or if this is more of a universal trend, across areas of science.
Ben-Achour: Do you have a metric or a number that can sort of help people visualize the extent to which scientific progress has slowed down?
Funk: It’s hard to put a single number on it, even though that’s part of what we tried to do in the paper, partially because it’s declining at somewhat different rates across different fields, and if you look at different metrics, you’ll get different numbers. But if you use the metric that we use in our paper, which was based on looking essentially at patterns of citation and kind of how new scientific works kind of push the conversation in new directions or kind of add to the existing conversation, it ranges from anywhere from about 90% to 100% across different broad areas of science from what we saw back in the ’40s to early 2010s.
Ben-Achour: Ninety to 100% slowdown?
Funk: Decline from the high.
Ben-Achour: That seems so massive.
Funk: Yeah, well, and there’s been, you know, very dramatic changes in science over the course of that period in how science is done. So we know that back in the ’40s, a lot of science was done still by individuals or in small teams. Science has really grown up during that period, and today you have, across all fields, even social sciences and humanities and certainly physics, larger and larger groups of people working together, which tend to approach science in different ways. And so there’s been kind of corresponding dramatic increases in how science is organized. There’s also been huge increases, even greater increases in the amount of prior scientific knowledge that people have to learn to get to the frontiers of their fields, which has made science more challenging to do. And so it’s a big change, but it’s on par with what we’ve seen in other metrics as well.
Ben-Achour: Was there one particular area of science that slows down more rapidly than others, or was it kind of everywhere?
Funk: It was more or less everywhere, which was something that we thought was kind of surprising. The reason being that one of the leading candidates, in terms of theories for why things seem to be slowing down, or at least changing, is this low-hanging fruit theory, which is pretty simple. It just basically says that a lot of the easy but important discoveries that you could make within science have already been made. I mean, once you discover the electron or the theory of relativity, you can’t rediscover that, and everything else just seems a little bit less exciting, less monumental. And it’s also just much, much harder because, you know, you’re kind of building on these established streams of knowledge and so forth. And so the idea is, well, lots of the low-hanging fruit is gone, the amount of investment and research you need to make new breakthroughs is much, much greater. And so the reason why we were surprised to see a fairly consistent rate across lots of fields is that if that low-hanging fruit theory was right, or at least explained most of what’s going on, we would have expected that the decline would be very different across fields. Old fields like physics might have eaten their low-hanging fruit earlier. Comparatively newer fields like the social sciences might be still working on eating their low-hanging fruit. And there are some differences but more similarities, I would say, than differences across fields.
What’s going on with science?
Ben-Achour: What might it be that’s driving this, do you think, this slowdown?
Funk: Well, I think there’s lots of factors. And, you know, as I suggested at the beginning, this is something people have seen in a lot of areas from semiconductors, to economic growth, to agriculture. And so I think it’s difficult and unlikely to find any social phenomenon or social change that’s so large scale that you can pin to a single factor. But within science, a lot of the findings that we presented and that is also backed up by other studies, suggests that it might be the social organization of science that’s contributing in some ways. And so by the social organization, I mean things like how is science done? Is it done by small teams? Is it done by large teams? What are the incentives that scientists have to pursue certain types of projects over others? So for example, we know that in many universities, the way that scientists advance their careers and get promoted is by producing large numbers of publications that get cited, you know, fairly quickly given that tenure clocks are somewhat short. And so if you’re trying to maximize your publication output, you probably want to publish a lot of papers that maybe make smaller advances and contribute to things that people kind of already known or accepted. Rather than trying to, you know, break the mold and topple some well established scientific theory, which is high risk and takes a long time to get accepted.
Ben-Achour: Interesting, if you are someone who wanted to break the mold, you know, 50, 60, 70 years ago, you probably could do it alone. But today, you would need a whole team. And I guess it’s a coordination issue of trying to get, you know, funding an organization to do something radical, as you suggest.
Funk: Yeah I mean, it’s almost, you know, paradoxical or there’s certainly a tension, because since science has grown so much, and it’s so much more complex than it used to be, it takes people half their careers to get to the frontier of their field. And so an adaptive strategy that people use is to work with others. And so I partner… I’m a social scientist, and I partner with a mathematician who knows how to do some kind of analysis that I need to do. And so I don’t really learn all that math, but I rely on them to help me with it. And so as you do that, you naturally get these larger and larger teams, you need more people to get more money to buy the instruments you need and so forth. But as I’ve said, larger teams are set up in ways to pursue certain types of science that differ from the smaller teams. Smaller teams, you tend to have people interacting more with one another, more deeply, kind of challenging their ideas and those are where we start to see kind of the seeds of these new ways of thinking. Whereas in larger teams, there’s more of this division of labor. And so you don’t get as much of that cross fertilization between the different areas of specialization. And so it’s kind of like, ‘We know what we want and, you know, this person knows how to do this part, this person knows how to do that part.’ And so you get a little bit less of that, that creativity or that spark.
Side effects for the economy
Ben-Achour: What do you think this means for economic growth?
Funk: I think it’s hugely important. If you look over the long run, there’s lots of theories in economics and elsewhere that say economic growth is really driven by progress in technology and progress in technology is driven by progress in science. And that’s not to say that we’re not seeing lots of really great progress in both science and technology. I mean, we see all these incredible breakthroughs in AI with ChatGPT. And we see recent breakthroughs with mRNA vaccines and detection of gravity waves and so forth. But the kind of science that people are doing, is tending to really enhance the old conversation. So test out and demonstrate and establish and document existing theories and existing scientific understanding, rather than pushing science in new directions. And kind of opening up new fields of study, new areas of inquiry, which would ultimately lead to new types of technologies, which are the seeds of new industries and so forth. And so it raises concerns with the long run, you know, are we going to see the next big ideas in science? Or are we going to develop the next big areas of technology? And what does that mean for our national competitiveness and economic growth?
New approaches to how science is conducted
Ben-Achour: Is there something obvious that we could change either about funding or the way that scientific research is done or coordinated, that might improve the situation?
Funk: Yeah, so there’s been a lot of suggestions. This is something researchers have been looking at and there’s been a lot of conversations stimulated by the paper that we published. A lot of people point to the funding process. And so how federal agencies and foundations and other groups select proposals to be funded. And there’s an interesting tension there because on the one hand, you know, the government wants to make sure that taxpayer money that goes to support research is well spent. And so they like to have… invest in projects that are likely to yield advances in science and that are likely to have tangible outcomes that might end up feeding new products, or supporting industries and so forth. And so when you submit a proposal, you have to make a plan that kind of lays out each step for several years in advance. But that can be a problem, because we know if you look at the, you know, the history of science, that a lot of science and a lot of breakthroughs come from kind of unexpected chance encounters from serendipity. You think Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, you know, was from some mold that fell into a Petri dish in his lab, not something that was written up in a grant proposal. And so, as you do science, you learn about new possibilities and those are hard to anticipate in advance. So people are thinking, can we fund things in different ways? Could we fund investigators rather than specific projects? You know, support investigators to pursue what they feel is like the most important problem for us at a time kind of like the MacArthur Genius grants and so forth.
Ben-Achour: You know, different countries have different ways of organizing scientific research. I wonder if there are any other examples from around the world that would suggest something better we could do?
Funk: Well yeah, I mean they definitely have different priorities. You know, China’s been focused a lot on kind of the development side of things. Historically, the U.S. has been pretty good for supporting, you know, basic and fundamental research. And the end of the day and one thing that I would say is that you need both kinds of science. You need science that develops the conversation, that kind of adds value and improves existing knowledge and understanding, but you also need those contributions that kind of shake things up and clear away old ways of thinking that aren’t necessarily the most efficient and start afresh. And so you know, one thing that is an interesting possibility is that different countries might specialize in promoting different kinds of science. And you have some that are more focused on these, you know, slow moving fundamental breakthroughs that are high risk and then you’ve got some that are really good at taking the ideas developed and enhancing them and improving them. And so I think it also speaks to the need for greater coordination among government science agencies. And I don’t think it’s the type of problem that will be solved by just one country either changing their grant programs, because you see it happening across the globe.
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