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Groundbreaking patents and scientific discoveries are happening less and less often. Here’s why.

So much for flying cars. The question is what to do about the slowdown in scientific discovery.

The slowdown — seen across 45 million papers and 3.9 million U.S. patents stretching from 1945 to 2010 — may point to even bigger problems in the economy and cultural scene, say some observers. About half the economic gains in productivity come from innovations in science and technology, for example, but productivity growth has slowed in advanced economies. In the last 15 years, it has increased at just half the rate it did in the 15 years before then. Striking declines in “disruptive” works, ones that “break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions” in fields from physics to medicine, might just be a symptom of this bigger slowdown.

“You’re not crazy — this is actually happening,” said Johan Chu, an assistant professor of system dynamics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who was not part of the study. “We are living in a world which is very different from the 1950s, where you could make fundamental advances, to a world where that has become very, very hard to do.”

In scientific disciplines, declines in disruption indexes from 1945 to 2010 ranged from a 91.9 percent drop in social science papers to a 100 percent dive in physics studies, with a steep plunge until the 1970s and then a slower decline that levels off by 2010. In patents, from 1980 to 2010, the decrease ranged from a 78.7 percent fall in “computers and communications” to a 91.5 percent drop in “drugs and medical” categories, both following a similar curve. “Our big contribution is confirming these sort of suspicions that people had and showing it across all major fields of science and technology,” said Park (who acknowledged, with some irony, that this means his team’s disruption finding is thus not “disruptive” by its own measure, but rather is a “consolidative” report).

Backing up the results, the study found mirroring declines in the language used in papers and patents over time, with fewer introducing new words, and verbs like “make” and “produce” appearing less frequently, while ones like “improve” and “enhance” turn up more often. More and more scientists and inventors are doing more and more work along narrower and narrower avenues of knowledge, conclude Park and his colleagues, and producing groundbreaking work much less often.

“This paper is a monumental achievement,” said sociologist Bas Hofstra of Radboud University in the Netherlands. What is particularly convincing, he said, is that the evidence stretches across a varied archives of studies over time, which means it accounts for the effect being driven by arbitrary citation practices and appears statistically robust. “I am sure this paper will lead to many spinoff studies,” Hofstra added, trying to find scientists and inventors who don’t have declining disruption indexes.

But just why there has been an overall decline in breakthroughs as a share of all research and patents isn’t exactly clear.

Low-hanging fruit?

Patent practices today might explain the disruptive index findings in that area, said Vincent Paolo Violago of Parola Analytics, Inc., a New York-based patent research firm. Instead of patenting one fundamental innovation, inventors now repeatedly patent improvements to retain licensing rights, he said: “I really wouldn’t expect much disruptive technology from patents because patents have a more economical use than that of reporting new discoveries.”

The study authors call for funding agencies to provide more sabbaticals and funding of long-term, undirected research to scientists to combat funneling them into low-risk, low-payoff experiments. “There’s more work that needs to be done to really understand different factors that are contributing to this trend,” said Park.

Marvel-less universe

“I think there was a period perhaps around the Second World War or a little past then when devoting more resources toward creating more things was the right answer and it worked tremendously well in terms of science and in terms of everything else,” said Chu. “But you get to now, and we’ve kept that sort of same industrial mindset of ‘more is better,’ and we have more scientists and more papers and more journals and all these things. But at the end of the day, having all that much more doesn’t seem to add that much more disruptive or far-reaching knowledge.”

The silver lining to the disruptive index finding, said Park, is the study finding that groundbreaking studies and patents did keep appearing, with their slowdown flattening off after the 1990s to a steady level. That implies there is a baseline level of groundbreaking discoveries that will keep coming, whatever inefficiencies are built into the current research and patent enterprise. They keep popping up across disciplines, from mRNA vaccines during the pandemic, to the discovery of “dark energy,” an accelerating expansion of galaxies throughout the universe, in the late 1990s.

“It’s kind of a sign that we haven’t reached the end of the endless frontier,” said Park. “The frontier is still out there, and we can still keep pushing. If we are incentivizing scientists and investors in the right way, perhaps we could continue to push the borders of science and technology.”

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