March 27, 2023

Major scientific discoveries are becoming increasingly rare – 30/01/2023 – Science

Miracle vaccines. Phones in our pockets. Reusable rockets. Our technological prowess and the scientific progress associated with it seem indisputable and unparalleled. But an article published by the journal Nature points out that the overall pace of major advances has slowed dramatically over the past nearly three-quarters of a century.

The researchers responsible for the article analyzed millions of patents and scientific articles and showed that researchers and inventors made relatively few advances and significant innovations, considering the growing mountain of scientific and technological research being conducted around the world.

The three analysts found between 1945 and 2010 a steady decline in disruptive discoveries as a percentage of research growth, suggesting that scientists today tend to make incremental progress rather than intellectual leaps.

“We should be living in a golden age of new discoveries and innovations,” says Michael Park, one of the paper’s authors and a doctoral candidate in entrepreneurship and strategic management at the University of Minnesota, in the US.

Park and his colleagues’ findings suggest that investments in science are increasing with diminishing returns and that, in some ways, quantity trumps quality.

While this is not addressed in the study, the findings also raise questions about the extent to which science is able to open new frontiers and sustain the kind of boldness that unlocked the individual and the universe, and what can be done to combat it. the growing distance between science and breakthrough discoveries; Previous studies have shown a slowdown in scientific progress, but in most cases they have done so with less rigor.

Park, Russel J. Funk, also at the University of Minnesota, and Erin Leahey, a sociologist at the University of Arizona (US), based their study on the kind of augmented citation analysis that Funk helped create. Citation analysis generally tracks how researchers cite each other’s published work as a way to separate the bright ideas from the less brilliant in a flooded system of scientific papers. The improved method they used broadens the analytical scope.

“It’s a very smart metric,” says Pierre Azoulay, professor of technological innovation, entrepreneurship and strategic management at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), in the US. “I was amazed when I saw it. It’s like a new game.”

It is not new that researchers are looking for objective ways to assess the state of science, which is seen as critical to economic development, national pride and military might. It became more difficult to do this as scientific articles published increased in number, reaching over 1 million each year. There are more than 3,000 articles every day — by any measure, an inexplicable blur.

Challenging this growth, experts have debated the value of incremental advances versus “aha” moments that change everything known about any given field.

The new study may deepen this debate. One surprise is that the findings, which were widely hailed as major advances, are considered by the new study’s authors to, in many cases, represent more than routine science. The authors consider that true jumps are sometimes completely absent from the discussion.

For example, the biggest advance cited in the list of examples compiled by the study is gene recombination, which is still little known by popular science. This discovery allowed the introduction of foreign DNA into human and animal cells, not just bacterial cells.

The New York Times reported this discovery in 1983, in an op-ed of just four paragraphs. However, the feat earned its authors and their institution, Columbia University, in the US, a number of awards, in addition to almost US$1 billion (about R$5 billion, at current prices) in licensing fees, as it enabled a significant breakthrough in biotech companies around the world.

Instead, analysts would see two of this century’s most famous discoveries as triumphs of ordinary science rather than bold leaps. The mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccines that successfully fight the coronavirus are the result of decades of low-level work, the authors point out.

And the 2015 observation of gravitational waves—subtle ripples in the fabric of spacetime—wasn’t exactly a breakthrough: it was confirmation of a centuries-old theory that required decades of hard work, testing and sensor development.

“Disruptive developments are good,” says scientist Dashun Wang, from Northwestern University (US), who used the new analytical technique in a study in 2019. “We want innovation. But we also want everyday science.”

The three analysts found the trend of incremental progress when they used the improved form of citation analysis to examine nearly 50 million scientific articles and patents published between 1945 and 2010. They looked at four categories—life sciences and biomedicine, natural sciences, technology, and social sciences. —and found a steady decline in discoveries they described as “disruptive.” “Our results suggest that the slower rate of disruption may reflect a fundamental change in the nature of science and technology,” they wrote.

His innovative method—and citation analysis more generally—gains analytical power from the requirement that scientists cite studies that helped shape their published findings. Beginning in the 1950s, analysts began counting these citations as a way of identifying important research. It was a kind of measure of scientific applause.

But the count can be misleading. Some authors cited their own works with some frequency. And the big names in science could get large numbers of citations for unusual discoveries. Worst of all, some of the most cited work involved only minor improvements to techniques widely used by the scientific community.

The new method examines citations in greater depth, more effectively separating routine work from real discoveries. It not only counts the citations that appear in the analyzed research, but also the previous studies it cites.

What was found was that prior work is cited much more often if the discovery is routine rather than highly innovative. The analytical method transforms this difference into a new prism through which to view the scientific endeavour.

The measure was named the CD index because of its scale, which ranges from consolidation to disruption of the existing body of knowledge.

Funk, who helped create the CD index, says the new study was so computationally intensive that the team had to use supercomputers at times to process the millions of data sets. “It took about a month,” he says. “This kind of thing wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. It’s just now becoming possible.”

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