According to a catchy measure that is in circulation, there is a malaise at the core of scientific activity. This admirable endeavor’s capacity to challenge conventional wisdom appears to be waning.
The inventors of the measure claim that decreasingly new patent filings are evidence of that deceleration. Science and technology are increasingly polishing the same conceptual pennies rather than creating novel ways of thinking. Iterative research may need to undergo some disruption if its more radical cousin is being replaced, maybe to damage knowledge, human welfare, and the economy.
In order to analyze 45 million scientific publications and 3.9 million patents, Erin Leahey, a sociology professor at Arizona University, joined forces with student Michael Park and Russell Funk, an associate professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at Minnesota University. Depending on whether an article or patent expanded on prior research or pointed the field in a novel direction, they assigned each one a “consolidation-disruption index.”
The researchers reasoned that “if a study or patent is disruptive, the subsequent work that references it is less likely to also cite its predecessors” in a recent article published in the academic journal Nature. Future researchers would regularly cite, for instance, the first work to declare that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but not the other earlier papers that (erroneously) claim the opposite. A disruptive paper had a CD index of 1, whereas consolidating papers had a CD index of -1.
As the decades passed, the average CD index decreased in various industries, indicating a fall in disruptiveness. Between 1945 and 2010, the CD index for the physical sciences decreased from 0.36 to zero. The number of patents also decreased between 1980 and 2010: the index for “computers and communications” patents dropped from 0.30 to 0.06; the index for “drugs and medical” patents went from 0.38 to 0.03. Compared to life sciences and biomedicine, social sciences had the greatest drop.
Why does it seem that advances in science and technology are waning? John Horgan, a science writer from the US who published The End of Science in 1996, thinks the time of ground-breaking discoveries is finished. He tells me, “It fits with my judgment that science is hitting a wall, and he says he doesn’t take pleasure in being right. I would like to continuously see new revelations. Sadly, though, it is not how scientific discovery operates. According to Horgan, there are only so many undiscovered facts and paradigms that can be altered, and there is only so much disruption that can be created.
The researchers question the validity of this “low-hanging fruit” hypothesis, stating that it is improbable that numerous disciplines would simultaneously be demystified to the same degree. They contend that as scientific output grows, researchers end up mastering ever-smaller spheres of knowledge. The potential for unique ideas that spark new industries is constrained by that funneling. It is not impossible to draw a link between this funneling and, for example, the productivity crisis in pharmaceutical R&D or Tyler Cowen’s theory of the “Great Stagnation.”
The fall in innovative research, according to Tim Minshall, a professor of innovation at Cambridge University, is concerning for humanity. He believes that the entire system has to be examined, from the incentives and obstacles that people, universities, businesses, and governments encounter when conducting risky research to the difficulties of scaling up radical ideas to realize their full social and economic potential. He does, however, issue a warning, saying that “revolutionary ideas alone do not lead to development… we need the incremental research that stretches and evaluates the disruptive ideas.”
Others have highlighted the decline in business-led research since the 1970s: work at corporate research units like Bell Labs and DuPont, for instance, has resulted in both Nobel Prizes and commercially successful products. Today, the majority of research takes place in institutions, where a “publish or perish” mentality heavily favors quantity over quality and the incremental over radical. The exceptions to this rule are behemoths like Meta and Google.
There are more researchers today than there were 60 years ago, and they are publishing more papers in more journals from more institutes. Research from 2021 that also found a similar funneling said that this proliferation was causing an “ossification of canon” and made it more difficult to identify the important scientific advancements. The only research credo cannot be “Publish or perish”. We also require a solid “disrupt or ossify” philosophy.