Is science really becoming less disruptive – and does it matter if it is?

Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor sitting together, looking at something off frame.

The discovery by Michel Mayor (right) and Didier Queloz of a planet orbiting a sun-like star sparked the search for exoplanets.Credit: Karl Schoendorfer/Shutterstock

The influential 20th-century physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn was instrumental in coining the term “paradigm shift” to describe how unexpected evidence can launch fields of research in new directions. paper published in nature earlier this month by sociologists Michael Park, Erin Leahy, and Russell Funk Paid live discussion By pointing out that the proportion of subversive papers and patents is decreasing over time1.

By analyzing more than 60 years of data drawn from bibliographic and patent databases, the authors conclude that it is far more likely now than it was in the mid-20th century that any single paper or patent would be ‘extremely troublesome’ – That is, it would change the course of an entire scientific field. Although the number of new papers and patents that researchers classify as disturbing has remained largely the same over the period they studied — from 1945 to 2010 — the explosion in research articles, patents, and funding in that time means that the share of disruptive science in publication and patent registration was going down.

Much of the feedback has involved self-inquiry about the implications for science if innovation slows, as well as questions about the nature of the modern scientific enterprise itself. This, in turn, raises more questions that can become the subject of further analysis.

The study uses a number of measures of disorder. The one that probably attracted the most attention is called the CD Index, which is based on citations. As the authors write, “If the paper or patent is standardized, the later work it cites is also less likely to mention its predecessors,” while “If the paper or patent is standardized, the later work it cites is also more likely to mention.” its predecessors.” In other words, with more consolidation, the same previously troublesome papers continue to be cited.

Individual sheets have the ability to disable or create fields. One of the most famous examples is James Watson and Francis Crick’s model of DNA from 1953, which was created with the help of Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering work in X-ray crystallography.2And3. Another is the discovery in 1995 by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of a planet orbiting a Sun-like star4 That launched the search for exoplanets.

But new trends have also emerged from the many studies that point to long-term research efforts. Gravitational waves are one example. Like the paper from the LIGO Collaboration that reported the first direct detection of a gravitational wave5 It was highly cited, and subsequent work has continued to cite the work leading up to it. Researchers cite the studies for a variety of reasons, not just to acknowledge the important previous work that is being built upon. Park and his colleagues controlled for some of these to better compare today’s disorder to that of several decades ago.

for this editorial, nature Talk to a number of scientists who study science and innovation. The paper by Park and colleagues1It is, as they say, based on a pattern that has been identified elsewhere in the specialized literature6And7, and some worry about the implications of the results. Science and innovation are drivers of growth and productivity, and the decline in disruptions can be linked to slow productivity and economic growth in many parts of the world.

Others argue that a decline in the portion of disruptive science should not cause concern if the absolute number of disruptive studies remains relatively constant over time. If a greater proportion of publications were incorporated, it might reflect the current scientific state: in many disciplines, the fundamentals are agreed upon, and so most further developments will be incremental rather than disruptive.

It is also possible that researchers are recording more incremental steps in formal research papers than before, rather than waiting for something of greater interest to be reported. No doubt, scientists will further analyze the significance of these findings using qualitative experimental methods, such as interviews and detailed observations that capture researchers’ own experiences in individual fields, such as Sociologist Harry Collins did work from within the LIGO team.

growing division

Another reason why Park and colleagues’ study has such a resonance is that it plays into broader concerns about how science is organized. One is whether dividing science into ever narrower epistemological units is detrimental to the discovery of new paths. Critics also point to publication incentives and metrics-driven research evaluations that steer scholarly study away from risk as funders, researchers, and institutions make the safe choice to keep scholarship, publication, and citation rolling.

This periodically leads to calls to either incentivize or directly fund more research and high risk and reward initiatives such as the UK Advanced Research and Invention Agency. This is modeled after the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was founded in 1958, so the search for disruptive innovation is not new.

But it is also possible that scientific knowledge and its dissemination are not specifically a research problem. The lack of space for reflection in the face of a deluge of information is increasingly evident across many sectors of society. Some in innovation studies believe that AI can help, by sifting through and sorting information in useful and meaningful ways: helping researchers summarize the latest knowledge in a discipline.8for example, or identify research projects that have the potential for breakthroughs9. If used appropriately, such technological disruption has the potential to buy scientists more time to advance their fields—in disruptive form or otherwise.

Asking questions about the nature of science and pondering the answers can only be a good thing. The work that Park and colleagues have done should continue to build, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, down to the level of individual domains. This will help us understand in more detail how and why science is changing, and where we want it to lead. The end result could be disruption or consolidation – or even a paradigm shift.

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