Despite advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, medicine and nuclear power, major advances in science and technology are slowing and less widely spaced than they were a few decades ago, according to a study published in the journal Nature. This is a recession that researchers say needs to be reversed to combat some of the most pressing issues facing humanity today, such as climate change.
- The researchers found that despite the explosive growth of innovation and scientific research in recent decades, developments have become more incremental and less disruptive, with progress stagnating in several key areas.
- Researchers analyzed about 45 million scientific papers and 3.9 million patents between 1945 and 2010, examining citation networks to assess whether breakthroughs reinforced the status quo or disrupted existing knowledge and pushed science and technology more dramatically in new directions.
- The researchers found that across all major areas of science and technology, such large breaks — the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, which made previous research obsolete, is a good example — have become less frequent since 1945.
- Instead, the citation patterns suggest that papers and patents are increasingly likely to enhance and expand existing knowledge rather than disrupt it, the researchers said, with innovators drawing from close sources of knowledge to advance their work.
- More additional work means “it may take longer to achieve these major breakthroughs that move science forward more dramatically,” said Russell Funk, a professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the study’s authors.
- According to the researchers, these findings underscore the need to rethink the way we conduct scientific research to better facilitate disruptive work and harness innovation to address humanity’s most pressing problems, such as climate change and space exploration.
What we do not know
It’s unclear exactly why scientific and technological innovation slowed in the decades after 1945. The researchers said their finding — which they also noted by analyzing the type of language used in patents and scientific papers during the same period — is probably not due to a decline in research quality, as the decline has continued. In innovation even when they only analyzed outstanding publications and crowned discoveries with a Nobel Prize. Statistical analyzes also excluded changes in publishing practices, intellectual property, and citation. Common ideas that scientists have picked all the “ripe fruits”—relatively easy progress in the field—or take longer to form due to the greater body of knowledge, struggle to explain similar rates of decline in different disciplines.
The tremendous advances in science and technology in recent years — such as the leaps forward in artificial intelligence, nuclear fusion, and gene editing — can make it hard to believe that the world of progress is in stagnation. According to the researchers, these developments are not inconsistent with the slowdown. Reducing disruptive work does not prevent hacks, it only slows the rate at which they occur. They added that the detection of gravitational waves and the development of Covid-19 mRNA vaccines are prime examples of highly disruptive work at a time when most research is more incremental in nature.
The nature of scholarly research is imperfect, and criticisms abound of the method of securing funding, the chosen research directions, the diversity of researchers and subjects, and the pressures on academics to publish. The researchers, who said their findings call for an overhaul of the way research is done, and call for giving academics the freedom to focus on quality and broaden their horizons, joined a chorus of others who advocate for an overhaul of research.
Translated article from the American magazine Forbes – Author: Robert Hart
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