The steady growth in the number of scientific papers being published is well-known, and largely reflects the increasing number of working scientists and their need to succeed in the “publish or perish” academic environment in which they find themselves. Publishers have responded with more journals, lower barriers to entry, and models that are clearly geared to supporting the “publish” imperative.
But what if all this activity is merely concealing a deeper problem — science that is less productive than it has been historically?
What if we’re riding the fumes of the past?
Two recent items point to this intriguing possibility.
One paper, published about a year ago in the journal Scientometrics, sought to measure discovery — not merely scientific output (i.e., publishing) — and quantify ease of discovery over long time periods. The author, Samuel Arbesman, looked at three areas of discovery: new mammalian species, new chemical elements, and new minor planets.
The core issue is that of “low-hanging fruit.” There is only so much we can discover within any particular field. As Arbesman writes:
. . . an illustrative example is that of the discovery of major internal organs within the human body. This process proceeded from ancient times until the discovery of the parathyroid gland within humans in 1880 by Ivar Sandström, the last major organ to be discovered.
Arbesman’s areas of study (planets, chemical elements, and mammalian species) are similar in a number of ways — they are finite, they hold little low-hanging fruit any longer, and they are fields with long legacies.
Arbesman finds discovery curves that straight-line southeast just like the one shown above for drug discovery, but each along an interesting physical dimension — namely, size. Larger mammals, larger chemical elements, and larger planets were first discovered. Now, each field is finding smaller and smaller items, as well as fewer of them. Scientific discovery has become more difficult and lower-yield in these fields.
Extrapolating from these observations, it’s interesting to ponder the paradigm shifts of science on a macro level. After all, if each field is finite, then the way for science to continue to be high-yield is to shift paradigms so that new perspectives and new discoveries can emanate from new ways of looking at things.
Yet that macro level seems to be headed southeast, as well, at least as I think about it — that is, each new paradigm is getting smaller and smaller, more and more niche, more specialized, and lower yield. Within a few hundred years, we went from categorizing kingdom, phylum, and species to quantum mechanics, microtransistors, and nanotubes.
As the drug discovery curve above shows, medicine has followed a similar, narrowing path, from the major breakthroughs like penicillin and sulfa drugs to lower-yield niche and chemotherapeutic regimens.
NASA itself recently felt this law of diminishing returns, with its major payload of benefits delivered with satellites, the moon landing, and Skylab, while recent advances (rovers, the Hubble, and deep probes) have provided fascinating data but not the large, obvious benefits of the early days.
And what if science becomes — or has become — lower-yield? Is that a reason to reconsider funding policies? Rationally, looking at the cost-benefit may already have effects on resource and funding allocations.
Is it unreasonable to assume that science will continue to produce large, demonstrable advances and insights of the size and importance of the major breakthroughs?
As Paul Kedrosky writes in his post on this same topic (which inspired this little essay):
Yes, things are getting harder, and they will continue to do so. And I’m not in the camp that says we have an inexhaustible supply of anything just waiting for human ingenuity to be applied. But it’s worth reminding ourselves, especially with the current spate of stories about declining innovation, that we need to be careful about where the real scarcity lies — cleverness, not capital.