A Scientific Devolution
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Imagine what it was like to be alive before and just after the turn of the last century. You'd be watching a dazzling parade of miraculous inventions.
THOMAS ALVA EDISON Simple inventions have been revolutionized. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Thomas Alva Edison in 1908, reflecting on the impact of his many inventions, including the automatic telegraph, the phonograph and transmitter. And so he claimed: the light bulb.
THOMAS ALVA EDISON It is still too early to stand outside these events and pronounce final judgment on their lasting value. But we base surely entertain believe that the last half of the 19th century was as distinct in its electrical inventions as the first half was in its determination to see it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And into that new century. The eureka moments continued.
ERNEST RUTHERFORD In our laboratories today, we live in an atmosphere dim with a flying fragment of exploding atoms. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ernest Rutherford In 1935, one of the scientists responsible for...
ERNEST RUTHERFORD The discovery of the electron and of the spontaneous radioactivity observed in the heavy elements uranium and thorium. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elementary particles, you know, just the building blocks of the universe. And then...
NEWS REPORT The key to the atom sequence was first given to the world in 1905, when the genius Albert Einstein defined the relation between all matter and energy and evolved his revolutionary theory of special relativity. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Einstein looked to science for clarity amid the chaos, which happens from time to time, as when in...
NEWS REPORT 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick first discovered the structure of DNA. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Even though the scientist, Rosalind Franklin, was the one who first photographed the x pattern, which was.
SCIENTIST A telltale sign for a helical structure of some kind. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A single snapshot containing the double helix secret of life. Now, compare that to...
NEWS REPORT This year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry will be shared by three scientists.
PRIZE COMMITTEE They received the prize for the development of Click Chemistry and bio orthogonal chemistry. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Less eureka and more, huh? Earlier this month, a new paper by Michael Parke, Erin Lahey and Russell J. Funk in the journal Nature argued that the lack of 'aha' moments in science is no accident. The research team concluded that there just aren't as many disruptive scientific breakthroughs as there used to be. But how do you determine what's a disruptive breakthrough and what's just a great scientific achievement?
WILLIAM J. BROAD They came up with a beautiful, new, sexy idea in the very boring world of citation analysis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE William J. Broad, science journalist and senior writer at The New York Times, says that the old way of gauging a scientific papers impact involved simply counting the number of how many people cited the paper in later research. A basic applause meter. But that kind of count could be thrown off by anything from the popularity of the researchers to the scientists who are citing themselves in their own work. So Park Leahey and Funke made an adjustment.
WILLIAM J. BROAD They were going deeper. They looked at nearly 50 million papers and patents going back to 1945 and analyzed them with this new technique of theirs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They measured not just how many times a colleague cited the paper at issue, but also how many times they cited the citations in that paper. But how does that indicate actual scientific disruption?
WILLIAM J. BROAD We could just use the Watson and Crick paper as an example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They made that breakthrough when they saw it visualized in a leaked photograph stolen from Rosalind Franklin.
WILLIAM J. BROAD Darn right. They took it and ran in one of the great outrages of science history. Using her research, they came up with the helical structure of DNA in 1953, which was a big deal. Now, that paper, if you look at it through this new lens, they don't look just at the paper. They look at what the paper cited when it was written. Now, in the case of Watson and Crick, there are just six citations to their paper that appeared in Nature. One, they're pointing out a mistake in theory on how DNA was structured. And two of them are saying we don't have enough data to really figure this out experimentally. Oh, and very few citations. It turns out that in this new kind of analysis, that's the hallmark of a breakthrough for breakthrough papers. People don't go back to papers that breakthrough artists cited because what they did was so novel in big. In desultory research, they're more interested in the winding path, things like mRNA vaccines, which were a lifesaver. Right? It seems like a huge breakthrough, and it is in terms of public health. However, if you go back and look at where that came from, it was decades and decades of itsy bitsy steps along this winding path. So that by the definition of these researchers, is ordinary science. It's consolidating information rather than taking giant leaps forward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If I'm understanding this correctly, the disruption and the breakthrough level of a paper or patent rests on how big of a leap it makes beyond the body of the research behind it. Right.
WILLIAM J. BROAD Beautifully said. I'm going to quote you in my next article.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are their holes in this method?
WILLIAM J. BROAD Probably this is a new baby, right? I just became a grandparent for the first time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Congratulations.
WILLIAM J. BROAD Thank you very much. But that new baby is perfect and it's obviously the world's most beautiful baby. Well, we'll see, right? Time goes by and it turns out the new baby has not ours of course, this new analytic technique has limitations. That's the beautiful and scary thing about this. Science is this enormous global enterprise. And yet we don't really have very good ways to get a grip on how well it's doing. This paper takes a very interesting step in that direction, and it's already creating a large hubbub in the community. But there will be criticism and there will be updates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Since disruptive breakthroughs are rarer and rarer. According to the paper. Or nature. What are some of them?
WILLIAM J. BROAD The one on the top of their scale, almost off the charts is a breakthrough. Blew my mind because I had never heard of it. It's this gene splicing technique for inserting DNA into human cells, allowing all kinds of great biotechnology stuff. And it made between Columbia and these three investigators, almost $1,000,000,000 in royalties, all kinds of science awards. I had never heard of it, but it's in terms of their measure, more important than Watson and Crick. You know, it's like off the charts, which is fascinating. They've got a metric that's finding things that are huge and virtually unknown to the public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow. Well, here's the proportion question then. More research is being published than ever. You say a million papers a year are published. Does the number of major breakthroughs look smaller because there's just so much more of it going on?
WILLIAM J. BROAD Another way this trend gets framed is that quantity is outdoing quality. Why? That's the big question. Why? Why is this literature exploding at the expense of seeing real breakthroughs? And that's a very, very hard question, which they don't really address in this paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think that maybe to answer it, we should try to follow the money, because money for science is just exploding!
WILLIAM J. BROAD Totally! I quote a guy at the end of the piece, this very nice sociologist at the University of Chicago, James Evans. This nation has invested literally many trillions of dollars in scientific research over the decades. But people on Capitol Hill are very worried about frittering away those trillions. Remember good Senator Proxmire, from the great state of Wisconsin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah.
WILLIAM J. BROAD He had these Golden Fleece Awards, which he gave out like every month. And a lot of those were science.
WILLIAM PROXMIRE Ever since 1975, every month I've given an award, a golden fleece, to the most disgusting, revolting, repulsive waste of the taxpayer's money by the federal government. The first Golden Fleece we gave to an agency that spent $83,000 to try to find out why people fall in love. Now, the difficulty was that as even they could give you the answer, I wouldn't want to know because the great thing about loves this mystery. And once the scientists can weigh it measured, you can kiss a goodbye. And then I gave it to an agency that spent $130,000 to try to find out whether Sunfish that drink tequila are more aggressive than sunfish, that drink gin. Sunfish. Now, they could have come to Milwaukee, gotten all kinds of volunteers for that program. [END CLIP]
WILLIAM J. BROAD Scientists, frittering away your money on blue sky crap and they scared the crap out of a lot of scientists. And the whole apparatus has become extremely conservative in trying to encourage accountability in concrete results. We don't want to do blue sky research.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was reading the Vox article on this study, and Kelsey Piper wrote that, quote, It seems entirely possible that the slowdown in science is not an inevitable natural law, but a result of policy choices. Despite the record level of funding, we know that visionaries with transformative ideas like Katalin Kariko, who did the crucial early work to invent the mRNA vaccines, struggled for years to get grant money.
WILLIAM J. BROAD That's exactly right. Not only that, there's the academic complex like you want tenure. How many papers have you published? So people engage in what they call salami science. You cut your work into tiny, little incomprehensible bits, so each one gets a little paper, and then you can proudly announce to the tenure committee that you've got 300 publications out in respectable journals and give me tenure. It's put a big crimp in the quality of the research.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I want to float another theory to you that Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen articulated in The Atlantic a couple of years ago. They said, Suppose we think of science, the exploration of nature as similar to the exploration of a new continent. In the early days, little is known. Explorers set out and discover major new features with ease, but gradually they fill in knowledge of the new continent. To make significant discoveries, explorers must go to ever more remote areas under ever more difficult conditions.
WILLIAM J. BROAD What these people at the Atlantic are talking about is sort of science being a victim of nature. James Evans at the University of Chicago calls it, and they call it going for the low hanging fruit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Newtonian physics is now the first page of the textbook, no longer eliciting the kind of wonder it once did. You've suggested that to make a Newton level jump in today's research would be like inventing a personal time machine. I mean, is it that hard?
WILLIAM J. BROAD Yeah. Since we're on the media here, let's just put our cards on the table. Mm hmm. The media are complicit in the dumbing down of science and our goals. We've conditioned the public to see science as an accumulation of facts and discoveries. Those little tidbits are easy to digest, and they're these symbols of science. But I was a graduate student in the history of science that our teachers used to bash this into our heads. Real science isn't just those little factoids and those little discoveries. It's mostly ideas and concepts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I have to be honest, I was very skeptical of this story and still am to a degree because I'm not sure I agree on what a disruption might be. A lot of the disruptions of the past were the cogitation of one or two people. You know, small teams finding the first electron didn't take a lot of people. Thousands of scientists worked on finding the Higgs boson.
WILLIAM J. BROAD And gravity waves. Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right, right!
WILLIAM J. BROAD Very, very hard. Right. Huge endeavors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it's it just the romance, is it that it has to be just the result of one or two scientists? Are we defining breakthrough correctly?
WILLIAM J. BROAD I think when you start looking at the guts of their analysis, you start to see the wisdom of it, like gravity waves a new lens on the universe. This is changing astronomy as we speak. You know, new teams are focusing in on new parts of the universe for a new time. Like the first one was a collision of two black holes. You know, it's telling you fundamental things about how the universe works is Huge in terms of application. But where did that come from? It starts with Einstein and general relativity, and then a century of hard work of hundreds of people and hundreds of papers making little incremental steps forward to try to do what? To confirm his brilliant theory. I mean, the effects of that proof are enormous. They're creating a new field, a new lens on the universe. But getting there was a century old idea, right? That's what they're identifying as being rare or those big breakthrough ideas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Disruption means changing how we see the world, because in terms of technologies, one could argue that the Internet or something were disruptive in how they changed our lives.
WILLIAM J. BROAD Socially disruptive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Materially disruptive.
WILLIAM J. BROAD One of the papers that these authors cite is the Google patent. This was a simple algorithmic change sponsored by federal research. Larry Page and company came up with it and presto-chango, everything has changed about search algorithms. But that's not science. And as we can see with AI, in many respects, it's getting easier, not harder. People think of electronics and the heart of your computer as really complex. Well, it's these little, you know, logic circuits that are basically really simple. It's just there's an awful lot of them. It's simple mathematics compared to chaos in the atmosphere and getting a grip on the swirls and how they affect your ability to predict the weather ten years in advance. A hundred years in advance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What is this research into the diminishing number of disruptions over time for what to do for us?
WILLIAM J. BROAD It's feedback from our millions of people and trillions of dollars that are piling away doing science. If we did for this research what they have done for all this other research, I think we'd find a lot of citations to it. It's a new way of thinking and we'd see that a lot of those citations are from people who are trying to figure out ways to make science work better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you hope comes out of this research?
WILLIAM J. BROAD We are dazzled by science because it does all these dazzling things, but in truth, it's a very fragile thing institutionally. And if I had a lamp and one wish that the genie would grant, it would be that people could and Congress could and the administrators could communicate better. What a beautiful, fragile thing it is. And that you got to look at it and take care of it if you want the miracles to continue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
WILLIAM J. BROAD No, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE William J. Broad is a science journalist and senior writer at The New York Times.