The Erratic March of Scientific Progress

Vox, Kelsey Piper, 11 Jan 2023: Why is science slowing down?, subtitled “Science is the engine of society, and the decline of truly disruptive research is a warning sign for all of us.”

Is this really a new problem? Or one of those issues that keeps welling up in popular media because the answer is not well-understood?

As an aside: I usually note and compile links from the dozen or so websites I check every day, early in the day, then sit down in late afternoon to write them up on for a post here, usually reading the linked articles for the first time. (And sometimes, deciding not to include them after all.) Sometimes I link lots of posts with headlines only; sometimes I get hung up on one article that I think worth challenging in detail. Today is one of the latter.

To this piece, before reading it, I’d guess the answer is that all the easy discoveries have already been made. (This is also why the more difficult claims about new discoveries, as in those in psychology, have been so difficult to replicate.) And that there have been no truly revolutionary discovers with practical applications in recent decades. (The advancements in AI what with ChatGPT are the most obvious technological advances in recent months. And the James Webb telescope images are huge scientific achievements, but admittedly don’t have practical technological applications.)

Now let’s read the article and see what it says. It opens:

If you measure by the sheer quantity of papers published, we’re in a golden age of science. There are more scientists than ever; there are more publications than ever; and while a lot of great work remains underfunded, there’s far more funding than ever before. Federal funding for research and development has grown from $3.5 billion in 1955 to $137.8 billion in 2020, a more than tenfold increase even once you adjust for inflation.

Fields like AI and biotechnology seem to be booming, but outside of a few specific areas, like AI and biotechnology, it doesn’t really feel like we’re in a golden age of science. The early 20th century saw discovery after discovery that radically changed our comprehension of the world we lived in, and upended industry: nitrogen fixation, which made it possible to feed billions; the structure of the atom and of DNA; rocketry, plate tectonics, radio, computing, antibiotics, general relativity, nuclear chain reactions, quantum mechanics … the list goes on and on.

There might be more science now, but it feels like it adds up to little that compares to the 20th century in terms of discoveries that actually change the world. It feels like we’re doing more research and getting less out of it.

The article examines a paper from the magazine Nature: Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Then the writer asks two questions, to which I will summarize her answers.

(1) Are we getting worse at transformative science?

The answer here is yes, based on an analysis of millions of papers and millions of patents along an index that measures whether they’re “consolidating” (building on previous knowledge), or “disrupting” (pointing to new avenues of research). The change in the ratio is dramatic: from half or a third, to under a percent.

(2) Why is science getting harder?

Here the author mentions my answer, the “low-hanging fruit” theory and the idea that new discoveries take longer to find.

But this feels a little circular as an answer. Why aren’t scientists discovering new things? Maybe because we already discovered all the transformative and crucial things. Why do we think we may have discovered all the transformative and crucial things? Well, because scientists aren’t finding any new ones!

So then the writer offers another explanation — whether true or not, this is the kind of thing I look for when reading an article like this: to see if there’s something here I hadn’t thought of before.

It seems entirely possible that the slowdown in science is not an inevitable natural law, but a result of policy choices. The way we hand out scientific grants is flawed, for instance. Despite the record level of funding, we know that visionaries with transformative ideas — like Katalin Karikó, who did crucial early work to invent mRNA vaccines — struggled for years to get grant money. And getting money requires jumping through a growing number of hoops — many leading scientists now spend 50 percent of their time writing grant proposals so they can spend the other 50 percent actually doing science.


Saying that the science slowdown is inevitable because our predecessors already grabbed all the good ideas might blind us to the possibility that science is slowing down because we’re actively mismanaging it, directing researchers away from the best uses of their time and the most crucial research and toward small incremental papers that keep funders — and tenure review committees — happy.

But this begs the question, is this a US issue only? If the flaw is in the granting process, haven’t other countries avoided this flaw? This seems to me to be a huge flaw in this article. Science is universal; other countries can as easily discover “disruptive” science of technology as the US. Or is this simply a bias, or assumption, that the US is forefront in science and technology across the world, and so everything important must happen there?. That might be true in general (number of Nobel Prizes, etc.), but certainly isn’t true in specifics. I’d be tempted to comment online to this article (something I very rarely do), but Vox is one of those sites that has eliminated commenting.

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