Why is science so sloooow

Updating Magic Universe


Despite the vast increases in the number of researchers and their funding, can anyone claim that the major discoveries of the past two decades are noticeably more glittering or more rapid than those of a century ago? The first two columns show discoveries selected in Magic Universe, and the third has the seven choicest from Breakthrough of the Year in Science magazine.

A provocative story in Magic Universe has the title “DISCOVERY: why the top experts are usually wrong”. It is largely about the battles that many discoverers still have with the scientific establishment. As for the point in the subtitle, it is childishly simple:

As there is not the slightest sign of any end to science, as a process of discovery, a moment’s reflection tells you that this means that the top experts are usually wrong. One of these days, what each of them now teaches to students and tells the public will be faulted, or be proved grossly inadequate, by a major discovery. If not, the subject must be moribund.

More subtle (I hope) is the evidence adduced for the harm science does to itself by its highly organized resistance to discovery. That’s why I have compared the big advances of the 1990s with those of the 1890s to show there is no sign of acceleration.

The only aim in this Update is to check that the 1990s were not an anomalously unlucky decade. To generate a new list of my own might take weeks of study, so I’ve resorted to Science magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” for 2000-09. In order to match the seven items per decade used earlier I’ve left out the three least impressive “breakthroughs” (2004 avian influenza, 2007 global warming, and 2009 Ardipithecus ramidus).

Dear reader, you can add or subtract whatever you like, but I don’t think you’ll find we live in any sort of golden age of discovery. So why not?

I mention in Magic Universe that the needless delays and inefficiencies of current science give more time for the world at large to adapt to the consequences of discoveries. But that is not a policy democratically prescribed by taxpayers who fund the research. Having checked (to my own satisfaction) that it doesn’t need revising, I shall simply repeat what I have about science’s self-harm, within that “Discovery” story.

From Magic Universe

[sub-heading] “How science hobbles itself”

Despite forecasts of the end of science, there is no sign of any slowdown in progress at the frontiers of discovery. On the contrary this book tells of striking achievements in many areas. Scientists now peruse the genes with ease. They peer inside the living brain, the rocky Earth and the stormy Sun, and explore the Universe with novel telescopes. Vast new fields beckon.

On the other hand, discovery shows no sign of speeding up. This is despite a huge increase in the workforce, such that half the scientists who ever lived are still breathing. About 20,000 scientific papers are published every working day, ten times more than in 1950. But these are nearly all filling in of details in Kuhn’s normal science, or looking to practical applications. If you ask where the big discoveries are, that transform human understanding and set science on a new course, they are as precious and rare as ever.

The trawl in 1990-2000 included nanotubes, planets orbiting other stars, hopeful monsters in biology, super-atoms, cosmic acceleration, plasma crystals, and neutrino oscillations. All cracking stuff. Yet it is instructive to compare them with discoveries 100 years earlier. The period 1890-1900 brought X-rays, radioactivity, the electron, viruses, enzymes, free radicals and blood groups. You’d have to be pretty brash to claim that the recent lot was noticeably more glittering.

One difference is that all of the earlier discoveries mentioned, 1890-1900, were made in Europe, and 100 years later the honours were shared between Europe, the USA and Japan. That only emphasises the much wider pool of talent that exists, which now includes also many more outstanding women. Yet there is no obvious shortage of available Nobel prizes, 100 years after they were instituted.

Apologists accounting for the relatively poor performance in discoveries per million scientist-years, will tell you that all the easy research has been done. Nowadays, it is said, you need expensive apparatus and large teams of scientists to break new ground. That is the case in some branches of science, but it is offset by the fact that the fancy kit makes life easier, once you have it.

The basic reason why there is no hint of accelerated discovery, despite the explosive growth in the population of researchers, may be that the social system of science has become more skilled at resisting new knowledge and ideas. Indeed, that seems to have become its chief function. Science is no longer a vocation for the dedicated few, as it was in the days of Pasteur and Maxwell, but a career for the many.

To safeguard jobs and pensions, you must safeguard funding. That means deciding where you believe science is heading — an absurd aspiration in itself — and presenting a united front. Field by field, the funding agencies gather awards panels of experts from the scientific communities that they serve. Niceties are observed when the panellist withdraws from the room when his or her own grant application is up for consideration, but otherwise the system is pretty cosy.

The same united front acts downwards through the system to regulate the activities of individual scientists. When they apply for grants, or when they submit their research findings for publication, experienced people in the same field say ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’. Anything that contradicts the party line of normal science is likely to be judged bad, or given a low priority. When funds are short (as they usually are) a low priority means there’s nothing to spare for oddballs.

Major discoveries perturb the system. They may bring a shift of power, such that famous scientists are proved to be wrong and young upstarts replace them. Lecture notes become out of date overnight. In the extreme, a discovery can result in outmoded laboratories being shut down.

To try to ensure that nobody is accidentally funded to make an unwelcome discovery, applicants are typically required to predict the results of a proposed line of research. By definition, a discovery is not exactly knowable in advance, so this is an effective deterrent. Discoveries are still made, either by quite respectable scientists by mischance or by mavericks on purpose. The system then switches into overdrive to ridicule them.

As a self-employed, independent researcher, the British chemist James Lovelock was able to speak his mind, and explain how the system discourages creativity. ‘Before a scientist can be funded to do a research, and before he can publish the results of his work, it must be examined and approved by an anonymous group of so-called peers. This inquisition can’t hang or burn heretics yet, but it can deny them the ability to publish their research, or to receive grants to pay for it. It has the full power to destroy the career of any scientist who rebels.’

The confessions of a Nobel prizewinner show that Lovelock did not exaggerate. Stanley Prusiner discovered prions as the agents of encephalopathies. He funded his initial work on these brain-rotting diseases in 1974, by applying for a grant on a completely different subject. He realised that a candid application would meet opposition.

The essence of Prusiner’s eventual discovery was that proteins could be infectious agents. The entire biomedical establishment knew that infectious agents had to include genetic material, nucleic acids, as in bacteria, viruses and parasites. So when he kept finding only protein, a major private funder withdrew support and his university threatened to deny him a tenured position. He went public with the idea of prions in 1982, and set off a firestorm.

The media provided the naysayers with a means to vent their frustration at not being able to find the cherished nucleic acid that they were so sure must exist,’ Prusiner recalled later. ‘Since the press was usually unable to understand the scientific arguments and they are usually keen to write about any controversy, the personal attacks of the naysayers at times became very vicious.’ Prusiner’s chief complaint was that the scorn upset his wife.

Science doesn’t have to be like that. A few institutions with assured funding make a quite disproportionate contribution to discovery. Bell Laboratories in New Jersey is one example, which crops up again and again in this book, in fields from cosmology to brain research. Another is the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Massachusetts. ‘It’s not concerned with channelling science to a particular end,’ explained its director, Susan Lindquist. ‘Rather, its philosophy is that if you take the best people and give them the right resources, they will do important work.’

Footnote added 21 May 2010

These closing sentiments are confirmed by today’s news of an achievement that trumps all of the discoveries listed for 2000-09 – namely the first artificial life, in a synthetic bacterium. It’s the work of Craig Venter, a geneticist turned entrepreneur working with private funding. I suppose strictly speaking it’s a technology rather than a discovery, but it illustrates beautifully the huge advantage of escaping from the ponderous public management of research and peer review.


3 Responses to Why is science so sloooow

  1. dearieme says:

    Intelligent use of lotteries to award grants might help.

  2. Borepatch says:

    This sounds very similar to what Claton Christensen described in The Innovator’s Dilemma. Well run copanies, he says, excel at managing sustaining technologies. They are very poor at managing Disruptive technologies, because these disrupt business models, rather than support them.

    This means that the companies who made 8″ computer disks were driven out of business by the companies who made 5 1/4″ drives, who are being driven out of business by the companies who make the new ones that go into iPods.

    What you describe sounds a lot like there’s good applied research going on, but basic research is doing very poorly indeed. Sustaining vs. disruptive.

    Perhaps we need a way for scientific research labs to go out of business, and new ones spring up

  3. […] Why is science so sloooow […]

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