this is life | Research: abundant production, but less and less scientific achievements

Scientific publications and technological innovations are increasing exponentially, but major discoveries that dramatically advance science are declining over time, according to a Nature study published on Wednesday.

The authors of the study, Carlson School of Management researchers, despite the acceleration in the production of knowledge, a paradox of slow-moving science has already been documented for certain research areas such as semiconductors or pharmaceuticals. Minnesota (USA).

They wanted to measure it for the first time in all subjects. Based on 45 million scientific articles over six decades (1945 to 2010) and 3.9 million patents (1976-2010) extracted from global databases, including the Web of Science information platform.

Over the years, their work breaks down the most cited papers to produce a “disruption index,” the way scientists cite each other. This allows you to predict whether an article is a game-changer or a technological innovation creates a breakthrough.

They distinguish two types of discoveries: on the one hand, contributions that came to reinforce the “status quo”, like the Nobel laureates Khon and Sham (1965), based on existing theorems to develop an original method of electronic computing. structure of atoms.

– Steady fall –

On the other hand, “disruptive” discoveries that shake up theories and take science in a different direction, like Nobel Watsons and Cricks, who revolutionized biology by demonstrating the double helix structure of DNA.

Their index ranges from negative -1 point (consolidation) to +1 positive point (disruption). According to their calculations, the percentage of this indicator decreased significantly and continuously for publications between 1945 and 2010 (91.9%), affecting medicine, physical and social sciences as well. Also with 80% reduction for patents.

The vocabulary is in decline: the first decades studied are dominated by verbs that evoke creativity and discovery; in recent decades they have been replaced by words that evoke refinements or applications.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t more advances,” nuance Michael Park, lead author. Despite the slower pace, “there is still a fairly consistent amount of disruptive work in recent discoveries, such as gravitational waves in 2015 or the messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19,” he explains to AFP.

But “a healthy scientific ecosystem is one in which disruptive and reinforcing discoveries mix. However, the nature of science is changing,” emphasizes Professor Russell Funk, who led the work.

– “Publish or Perish” –

It’s about the increasing weight of knowledge that researchers and inventors must acquire, who spend more on training than “pushing the boundaries of science.”

This “research burden” “leads to reliance on ever narrower parts of existing knowledge,” Professor Funk laments. The study notes, for example, a tendency to cite more than the same previous work, and therefore a lack of renewal.

Another factor: the pressure to “publish, publish, publish” interprets the guarantee of academic success as “publish or perish”.

“Since the early 2000s, the publication race has accelerated,” says Jérôme Lamy, a historian and sociologist of science who was not involved.

“If the concept of +disruptive+discovery is a bit difficult to define, this research puts its finger precisely on a global trend and prompts researchers to +department+documents to improve performance and find funding,” the researcher continues. CNRS interviewed by AFP.

The expert analyzes that this “atomization” of work “leads to the weakening of research that takes less and less risk”.

To address this, the study urges national research agencies to prioritize quality over quantity and give scientists more time to think deeply about big topics.

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