Scientific Innovation is Slowing Down!

By Shlomo Maital

         Disruptive innovation is a kind of innovation that displaces established market-leading firms, products, and alliances. It was first developed by Prof. Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School in 1995. 

         Science research, too, can be disruptive.  For example, mRNA technology for vaccines has disrupted conventional dead-virus vaccine approaches (except in China). 

         New research, that covered a mind-boggling six decades, 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents, published in NATURE, now shows that “progress is slowing in several major fields.”  *   Meaningful scientific innovation is slowing, despite massive investment of resources.  Disruptive scientific research is measured in this paper by a new measure, CD index, measures whether research is ‘consolidating’ (building on what exists) or ‘disruptive’ (charting brand new directions, contrary to what exists, breaking sharply with past knowledge).  The authors claim this reflects “a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology”. 

       Gene splicing, for instance, was a disruptive breakthrough.  It has generated a huge new field of research.

        As someone who spent 40 years publishing research, albeit in economics, I have a hunch why breakthrough research is in decline.  The incentives are all wrong.

     Tenure involves often counting published papers.  Papers building on what is acceptable have a higher rate of success than papers that clash with conventional wisdom.  What reviewer wants to OK a paper that makes his or her own research irrelevant?

      Scientists spend vast amounts of time writing grant proposals.  Proposals that build on the knowledge created by those reviewing their request stand a better chance of approval.

      Newton said that scientists ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’.  True.  But sometimes, they have to climb the tree all by themselves, without help,  while the neighbors yell at them to get down at once. 

       Fewer scientists seem willing or able to do so.   

*  Park, M., Leahey, E., & Funk, R. J. (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature, 613(7942), 138-144.