Pace of scientific progress ‘slowing’

Researchers analysed data from 45 million papers and 4 million patents over six decades, finding less disruption and more consolidation

January 4, 2023
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Science and technology are becoming less innovative despite a huge growth in research output, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota said academia should put more focus on quality over quantity so they can create more consequential scientific breakthroughs.

Carlson School of Management associate professor Russell Funk, doctoral student Michael Park and Erin Leahey of the University of Arizona analysed data from 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents across six decades.

Their paper, published in Nature, distinguishes between contributions that improve existing streams of knowledge, and those that disrupt existing knowledge and propel science and technology in new directions.

They assessed the disruptiveness score using a tool called the CD index, which measures how papers and patents change networks of citations in science and in technology.

Despite exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge – conditions which should be “ripe for major advances” – they found that papers and patents are becoming less likely to be disruptive, and more likely to be consolidating of previous work.

“A healthy scientific ecosystem is one where there’s a mix of disruptive discoveries and consolidating improvements, but the nature of research is shifting,” said Dr Funk.

“With incremental innovations being more common, it may take longer to make those key breakthroughs that push science forward more dramatically.”

The fall in disruptiveness scores for papers ranged from 92 per cent for social sciences to 100 per cent for physical sciences between 1945 and 2010.

For patents, the decrease in score between 1980 and 2010 ranged from 78 per cent for computing and communications to 92 per cent for drugs and medical.

Some have suggested that innovation is declining because all the “low-hanging fruit” has already been taken, but the researchers say the broad similarity across all fields suggests this is unlikely.

They say the decline is unlikely to be driven by the quality of the published work or by changes in citation policies, but because science is increasingly relying on a narrower set of existing knowledge that is bad for scientific progress – though it may benefit individual careers.

The researchers also point to the growing burden of knowledge that scientists are required to learn, which means more time spent training rather than pushing the boundaries of science.

The paper calls for further investment in long-term, riskier projects that would allow academics to go beyond the “publish or perish” research culture of the present.

“If you are worried about publishing paper after paper as quickly as you can, that leaves a lot less time to read deeply and to think about some of the big problems that might lead to these disruptive breakthroughs,” said Dr Park.

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