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Why is the progress of science slow?

If we measure the absolute number of articles published, we are now living in a golden age of science. The number of scientists is more than ever; The number of publications has never been this high and although many large scientific projects are facing a lack of funding, compared to the past, there is much more funding. In the United States, the federal budget for research and development has increased from $3.5 billion in 1955 to $137.8 billion in 2020. Even taking into account inflation, this number has increased more than ten times.

It seems that fields such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology are developing rapidly; But outside of these few special fields, it is not really enough to be in the golden age of science. The early 20th century saw a succession of discoveries that fundamentally changed our understanding of the world we lived in and revolutionized industry: nitrogen fixation, which made it possible to feed billions of people. structure of atom and DNA; Rocketry, plate tectonics, radio, computer science, antibiotics, general relativity, nuclear chain reactions, quantum mechanics. This list can be continued.

There may be more science now, but in terms of discoveries that really change the world, there seem to be few transformative sciences compared to the 20th century. Apparently, nowadays we do more research and use it less. This is the conclusion that researchers have recently reached in an article called “Patents and Articles Become Less Transformative Over Time.”

The mentioned article It was published in Nature magazine on January 4, 2023By examining scientific articles and patents, he has tried to find out how much future research has been done based on existing studies, or how much a specific research has been used to push science and technology to new directions. The findings of the researchers are the same as mentioned above: it seems that there are fewer fundamental innovations compared to the past.

Have scientific discoveries decreased?

This is not a new question. As the Nature article points out, previous studies have “documented declining research productivity in semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and other fields. Papers, patents, and even grant applications are less innovative and less likely to connect different scientific fields than earlier works. The gap between the year of discovery and the awarding of the Nobel Prize has also increased, showing that today’s innovations are not at the same level as before.

However, the aforementioned criteria show a limited picture of progress and most of them, like the judgments of the Nobel Prize Committee, are very tasteful or limited to a single field. Nature researchers wanted to have a more comprehensive evaluation; As a result, they examined 25 million articles from 1945 to 2010 and 3.9 million patents from 1976 to 2010 based on a new metric called the CD index. With this index, the authors of the study were able to measure whether the articles stabilized the existing knowledge in the same field or transformed that knowledge and showed new and innovative paths in research.

It is believed that if an article is written based on a previous study, the researches referred to that article also generally refer to previous researches. If an article has shown a new research direction, then it is less likely that the researches citing it have referred to previous works. The lower the CD score, the less transformative or innovative the research.

For example, an article written in 1953 about the structure of DNA James Watson And Francis Crick, scored a very high score as “Transformer” in the CD index. This paper presents a new look at DNA, and the papers that cite it don’t bother to refer to the old, erroneous models of DNA.

The authors hypothesized that “transformational” articles, those that changed their field of study and indicated new lines of research, were in decline. And of course, their suspicions were correct: the number of such articles has decreased dramatically.

According to Nature research findings, in “Social Sciences”, the average CD5 decreased from 0.52 in 1945 to 0.04 in 2010. In the physical sciences, the average CD5 dropped from 0.36 in 1945 to zero in 2010. For “drug and medical patents”, the average CD5 decreased from 0.38 in 1980 to 0.03 in 2010. For “computer and communications patents,” an area where we might expect significant improvement, the average CD5 decreased from 0.30 in 1980 to 0.06 in 2010.

Why is it getting harder to discover new knowledge?

One possibility is that we came up with all the innovative ideas a while ago. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was much fundamental research that had not yet been done. Clearly, the person studying antibiotics for the first time will make much more progress than one in a thousand researchers at a pharmaceutical company a hundred years from now.

In this regard, scientists now usually make their important discoveries at an older age and as part of a larger team; Because probably getting to the forefront of a field requires more time and effort to learn everything.

But this answer seems somewhat like circular reasoning. Why don’t scientists discover new things? Maybe because we have already discovered all the innovative and vital things. Why do we think we have discovered all the innovative and vital things? Because scientists do not find anything new!


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