What is holding back disruptive science?

Illustration of a seismometer with measurements ranging from incredibly strong to almost non-existent.

Illustration: AĆ­da Amer/Axios

Discoveries that push science in new directions are happening less frequently than in the last century, according to a new finding that will help frame debates about how (and how much) to try to stimulate this type of research.

Why it matters: Scientific advances drive economies and contribute to better human health and lives, and are increasingly at the center of geopolitics. Countries are strengthening their scientific institutions to compete for the best talent and scientific and technological mastery.

  • “What we understand about those institutions and how to really improve them has the potential to have a big long-term impact on who we are as a society and on human well-being,” says Pierre Azoulay, an MIT economist who studies technology. innovation.

What’s new: A study of 25 million scientific articles published between 1945 and 2010 and 3.9 million patents (from 1976 to 2010) found that the proportion of “disturbing” articles published decreased.

  • Past analyzes have found that patents, papers, Nobel Prize winners and grant applications have become less novel than earlier work and less likely to bring together existing knowledge in new ways that support innovation, the researchers write. study authors in the journal. Nature.
  • But the new study takes a broader look at the question.

How does it work: The researchers measured the “disruption” of an article using the consolidation-disruption (CD) index, which captures how an article is cited.

  • Citations from an article that builds on previous work (consolidates knowledge) usually also cites that previous work. But an article is considered disturbing if the articles that later cite it do not refer to the same articles as the original article: the new finding replaces the old one in the knowledge network.
  • The researchers also analyzed the words in the articles and found that older articles were more likely to be written in terms of discovery (“form,” “measure,” and “determine”), while newer ones contained enhancement language. .
  • They found a decrease in disturbance in all fields, but it was greatest in the social sciences and least in the life sciences.
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Yes, but: The number of disruptive newspapers remained stable for decades. That helps reconcile the findings with headline-grabbing discoveries about advancing AI, black hole photography and the rapid development of COVID vaccines, says Russell Funk, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the new study.

  • The optimistic take: “We’re still asking new questions at a remarkably steady rate and solving problems at a much higher rate,” says Dashun Wang, who directs the Science and Innovation Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
  • The most pessimistic view: “The fact that the absolute number is not falling can be taken as a positive… but the drop in proportion is quite drastic and opens up a lot of questions,” says Azoulay.

the great question: “We have more knowledge to build on than ever before, so why not speed up innovation?” Funk says.

What’s going on: Several factors are likely contributing to the apparent slowdown in scientific progress, even as the number of scientists, the papers they publish, and the funding for their work have increased.

  • Funk and his colleagues found that scientists are using more limited slices of knowledge: in many fields, they are citing the same work over and over again. “So a lot of science is produced that isn’t used,” she says.
  • A 2021 study similarly noted an “ossification of the canon” paradoxically due to a flood of new publications. And as knowledge accumulates in increasing amounts, researchers may face a greater burden to learn about a field.

  • Others have suggested that scientists have picked the easiest fruits of their fields and that more research (and money) is needed to achieve the same amount of progress. But Funk says the findings are not consistent with that view because the rates of decline occur at roughly the same time in different fields and at roughly the same speed.
  • Some researchers point to the incentives that drive science: Research that confirms past work is often more attractive to funding agencies that “want to make research investments that are likely to pay off not just for science, but also for the public.” Funky says. And there is immense pressure to publish articles in order to get funded. But funding cannot be a strong trend driver in some fields.
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The panorama: For many, disruption, coveted and promoted in Silicon Valley culture, has a positive connotation and is increasingly synonymous with progress.

  • But it can’t be all there is to science, says Wang. “You need to have people asking questions and people solving problems. Problem solvers are probably seen as less disruptive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as valuable.” .
  • He points to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the Nobel Prize-winning LIGO experiments that prove it.
  • “There are super-important discoveries that aren’t disruptive but that advance a field or make a technology viable. You really need both,” Funk says, noting that the index’s original name was consolidation-destabilization. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t call it an interruption.”

Whats Next: Funk is interested in seeing whether a paper’s disruption is influenced by a variety of different factors: what agency or foundation funds it, the type of peer review process it goes through, or the age of the researchers.

  • Countries also have different and changing R&D objectives and different policies to incentivize certain types of science over others.
  • One question is whether such national diversity could actually be “good for scientific progress, rather than everyone trying to do something disruptive,” Funk says.

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