Science is slowing down. Here’s what we can do about it
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Out of all the competing systems of thought, science holds such an exalted place in our society because it works.
Science is stagnating.Credit:Getty Images
Science can be used to calculate an intercept path to the moon, and the Apollo astronauts that follow it reliably end up in the Sea of Tranquility. Again and again its innovations and breakthroughs have disrupted society, increasing our lifespans, equipping us with thinking machines, allowing us to venture into the cosmos.
But science may have a sickness – concerns have been mounting for some time that it is slowing down.
Consider medicine. We know more about the causes of disease than ever before, and we spend more money on research and development than ever in human history, yet we’re not seeing a corresponding increase in new drugs being developed.
Or computer chips. You may be familiar with Moore’s Law: the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles every two years. This law is holding up, but the number of researchers required by the chip industry to continue this progress is more than 18 times the number needed 50 years ago.
Our ability to coax ever more productivity from a single seed is falling by about 5 per cent per year. Our ability to cut the mortality of disease is declining.
In Nature earlier this year, Michael Park led an analysis of 25 million scientific papers, scoring them on an index between “consolidating” or “disruptive” – do they bring together prior research, or move it in a new direction?
Between 1945 and 2010, the level of disruption in the world’s scientific literature fell by between 91.9 per cent and 100 per cent, the authors found.
We still see huge breakthroughs: mRNA vaccines and the measurement of gravity waves, for example. But what seems to be happening is that it takes far more researchers to make these breakthroughs. Hence, their productivity is declining.
Seeds of a slowdown
Context is important here. Research productivity is declining as overall global productivity also declines; the decline became particularly acute after the global financial crisis in 2007-08 and has only worsened during the pandemic. Here, science and economics are linked: new scientific breakthroughs should make us more economically productive. But the gears of the system are calcifying.
There are several theories.
‘Discovery in our lifetime is possibly unlimited.’
The simplest: we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. Science journalists are told never to say “miracle”, but perhaps that’s because we’ve already discovered them all?
One hundred years ago, two-thirds of children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes died two years after diagnosis; the discovery of insulin in 1921 meant they now live normal lives.
Isolating insulin in dogs is somewhat easier than the tasks that face today’s scientists, such as genetically manipulating immune cells to target cancers, I suspect.
“But people have been saying the low hanging-fruit is picked for over 100 years. I don’t buy it,” Professor Beth Webster, director of the Centre for Transformative Innovation at Swinburne University, tells me. “Discovery in our lifetime is possibly unlimited.”
Indeed, the Nature paper suggests all fields of science are becoming less innovative. That suggests a systemic problem.
Webster argues that our systems of research have become increasingly congealed. Researchers trying to do blue-sky work find themselves swimming through muck.
“There is a lot of pressure not to do disruptive stuff. If you want to get a government grant, and you’re too far out there, a real alternative idea … you’re probably not going to get funded,” she says. MRNA researchers struggled to get grant funding to explore their radical ideas for years, for example.
And successive governments have reoriented Australia’s research away from discovery and towards commercialisation. Between 1992 and 2018, the amount of money spent on fundamental research fell 17 per cent, while spending on applied research increased by 18 per cent, I noted in a piece last year.
Meanwhile, universities push their academics to publish more and more; our incentives prioritise quantity over quality. Indeed, there’s some evidence we’re now simply publishing too many papers, with important ones struggling to get noticed. Universities reward academics whose papers get cited more often; this pushes them toward incremental science, which is more likely to be widely cited, rather than searching for breakthroughs.
And due to the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Australia’s research funding organisations, researchers often spend several months of their year writing grant applications, the vast majority of which will be unsuccessful.
“They are caught up in this treadmill of grant submissions, often with a very small chance of success,” says Roy Green, emeritus professor at the University of Technology Sydney and author of a Senate report on Australia’s innovation system.
Let’s return to insulin, a true science success story that is now in danger of turning to bitter research irony. Rather than keep pushing for breakthroughs, pharma companies now devote much research effort to incrementally improving insulin, allowing them to apply for new patents and keep prices high. This is a problem across big pharma, and it stifles innovation.
Given all this, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise the individual scientist in the system is producing fewer genuinely new ideas.
What is to be done?
There are obvious levers to pull to increase researcher productivity.
Universities could adopt new incentives that promote genuine new breakthroughs, rather than simply rewarding academics who write a lot of papers.
Grants bodies could find ways of making grant writing quick and easy, so scientists can do more science.
And those same organisations could take more risks. “Not worrying so much about failures and dead ends,” says Webster.
We could also build new breakthrough-specific science infrastructure. Green points to Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, an organisation that links science and business to do research entirely targeted on public need, like airbags, MP3s or LED lights; in 2018, the institution reported it was coming up with an average of three new inventions per working day.
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