Career issues deflect scientists from innovation

February 21, 2008

UK researchers are failing to make the ground-breaking discoveries that shake up the foundations of knowledge because they are preoccupied with incremental progress in already established fields, according to a new paper.

The paper, published in the current edition of the journal Medical Hypotheses, focuses on two types of science identified by philosopher Thomas Kuhn: "revolutionary science", which changes the fundamental structure of science by making new discoveries, and "normal science", which is concerned with refining understanding in an existing "paradigm".

"We suspect that over recent decades the UK has become an increasingly efficient factory for producing normal science ... But apparently the UK no longer specialises in revolutionary science in the way that it did until recent decades," conclude authors Bruce Charlton, who edits Medical Hypotheses, and Peter Andras. Both are based at Newcastle University.

The paper, "Down-shifting among top UK scientists? The decline of revolutionary science and the rise of normal science in the UK compared to the USA", examines levels of revolutionary science by comparing the number of Nobel laureates and the highly cited scientists each country is currently producing.

Dr Charlton and Dr Andras measured UK levels of "normal science" by looking at the total volume of scientific publications and citations. The results show that the UK's success at winning Nobel prizes has been "sharply reduced" in the past 60 years and also point to a "significant brain drain" of Britain's best scientists. The UK won 20 Nobel prizes between 1947 and 1966 compared with just nine between 1987 and 2006. In the US, the corresponding figure rose from 45 to 112.

The UK has been "progressively catching up" with the US in terms of normal science since the 1990s, say the paper's authors. The average top 20 UK university has increased the number of papers it publishes compared with US universities, rising from 81st to 62nd place between 1975 and 2004 in a ranking that compared outputs.

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