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Not Enough Progress?

In an article in The Atlantic today, Patrick Collison, the cofounder of software infrastructure company Stripe, and Y Combinator Research Fellow Michael Nielsen argue that the progress being made in science isn't keeping pace with the money and time being spent on research.

Despite the fact that there are more scientists, more funding for science, and more scientific papers published than ever before, there is only a "proportional increase in our scientific understanding," Collison and Neilsen write.

Part of the problem is that it's hard to measure scientific progress in meaningful ways, but given the standard approach is to ask independent scientists for their opinion of any given work. With that in mind, Nielsen and Collison ran a survey asking scientists to compare Nobel prizewinning discoveries in their fields and then used those rankings to determine how scientists think the quality of Nobel prizewinning discoveries has changed over the decades.

What they generally found in fields such as physics, chemistry, physiology, or medicine is that fewer prizes were awarded for work done in the 1990s and 2000s than over any similar window in earlier decades.

"The picture this survey paints is bleak: Over the past century we've vastly increased the time and money invested in science, but in scientists' own judgement we're producing the most important breakthroughs at a near-constant rate. On a per-dollar or per-person basis, this suggests that science is becoming far less efficient," they write.

Of course, Nobel prizes only give a partial picture of scientific progress, but Nielsen and Collison note that there is evidence that it's getting much harder to make important discoveries. It now requires larger teams, more extensive training, and more money. "Taken together, these results suggest strong diminishing returns to our scientific efforts," they add.

Nielsen and Collison do say that their critics tells them science is going through a "golden age," pointing to recent discoveries such as the Higgs particle and gravitational waves as evidence. But they respond that even though this is amazing research, previous generations of scientists have made discoveries of similar import.

And while certain fields such as AI and CRISPR are moving quickly on their own, they don't increase the pace of overall progress in science, Nielsen and Collison write. In fact, they add, here have always been fields "just as hot or hotter" than AI or CRISPR through the entire history of modern science.

It is possible that the pace of progress will ramp up again as new frontiers in biology and other fields open up, Nielsen and Collison write.

"If we see a slowing today, it is because science has remained too focused on established fields, where it’s becoming ever harder to make progress. We hope the future will see a more rapid proliferation of new fields, giving rise to major new questions," they note. "This is an opportunity for science to accelerate."

But this would require institutional response, and so far, there's been little evidence of that.

"Perhaps this lack of response is in part because some scientists see acknowledging diminishing returns as betraying scientists' collective self-interest. Most scientists strongly favor more research funding. They like to portray science in a positive light, emphasizing benefits and minimizing negatives," Nielsen and Collison write. "While understandable, the evidence is that science has slowed enormously per dollar or hour spent. That evidence demands a large-scale institutional response. It should be a major subject in public policy, and at grant agencies and universities. Better understanding the cause of this phenomenon is important, and identifying ways to reverse it is one of the greatest opportunities to improve our future."