Miracle Vaccines. Videophones in our pockets. Reusable rockets. Our technological plethora and its associated copious scientific progress seem undeniable and insurmountable. However, analysts now report that the overall pace of real progress has slowed dramatically in the last nearly 75 years.
In last month’s issue of the journal Nature, the researchers shared how their study shows that researchers and inventors have made relatively little progress compared to the world’s growing mountain of scientific and technological research.
“We should be in a golden age of new discoveries and innovations,” said Michael Park, an author on the paper and a doctoral candidate in management at the University of Minnesota.
The finding suggests that investments in science are trapped in a spiral of diminishing returns and that, in some respects, quantity is trumping quality. Previous studies have pointed to slower scientific progress, but have typically done so less rigorously.
Park, along with Russell J. Funk, also of the University of Minnesota, and Erin Leahey, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, based their study on an improved type of citation analysis that Funk helped devise. In general, citation analysis tracks how researchers cite the published studies of others as a way to sort out the bright ideas from the unexceptional ones in a flooded system of studies. His improved method broadens the analytical scope.
“It’s a very nifty metric,” said Pierre Azoulay, a professor of technological innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Researchers have long sought objective ways to assess the state of science, which is seen as vital to economic growth. It became more difficult to do so as published studies ballooned in number to over a million a year. Experts have debated the value of incremental steps versus “Eureka!” that change everything known about a field.
For example, the top breakthrough on the study’s list is a breakthrough in the gene splicing process little known to popular science. It allowed foreign DNA to be inserted into human and animal cells instead of just bacteria. The New York Times referred to it in a four-paragraph 1983 note. Still, the feat produced a shower of prizes for its authors and their institution, Columbia University in New York, as well as nearly $1 billion in licensing fees.
By contrast, analysts would see two of the most celebrated discoveries of this century as triumphs of ordinary science. The mRNA vaccines that successfully fight the coronavirus were based on decades of unglamorous hard work, they noted. And the 2015 observation of gravitational waves—subtle ripples in the fabric of spacetime—was confirmation of a centuries-old theory that required decades of hard work.
“Our results suggest that the decline in rates of breakthrough may reflect a fundamental change in the nature of science and technology,” they wrote.
By: WILLIAM J. BROAD
BBC-NEWS-SRC: http://www.nytsyn.com/subscribed/stories/6551460, IMPORTING DATE: 2023-01-30 23:10:07
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