Dug Campbell

Is Science Getting Harder?

I came across a fascinating article (‘Science is Getting Less Bang For Its Buck‘) published today by Patrick Collison (Stripe co-founder) and Michael Nielsen (Researcher at Y Combinator).

The suggestion is that despite a constant increase over the past few decades in both the amount of funding and number of career professionals focused on scientific research, the rate of new ground-breaking discoveries is, contrary to popular assumption, in fact slowing down.

I have to admit, I’m not entirely convinced by the method they used – surveying top scientists who were then asked to score the importance of historic scientific discoveries. To be fair, they do point out the limitations of adopting this approach. But the questions that the results raise are particularly interesting, because it makes you think about some follow-up questions, such as:-

  • If many of the most significant discoveries have been made (e.g. Einstein’s general theory of relativity), then is all we’re doing now looking into the details of these previously-discovered ‘lands’ of knowledge?
  • What justification is there for continuing to pour money into scientific research if the results are actually getting worse?
  • Are we actually becoming less productive as humans overall (as espoused by economists such as Tyler Cowen in ‘The Great Stagnation‘)?

My instinct (which could be entirely wrong) is that a lot of this comes down to two things. The first is that with every passing year, the requirements to become truly expert in almost every scientific field becomes that much more onerous. There’s just more information flying around and being layered on top of previous data. Which in turn makes it very hard to assess the true impact of discoveries as and when they’re made.

And my second point is somewhat related (and also hinted at in the article). It is impossible to assess the current state of the art without being subtly influenced by your own approach towards progress. For the pessimists out there, it’s always easier to believe that most of the major discoveries in human existence have been made and we’re more likely to be successful in optimising what we have rather than seeking to make brand new major discoveries.

However, if like me, you are more optimistic about the future, you’re more likely to believe that discoveries are still continually being made on a regular basis but that with so many more potentials combinations of research outcomes throughout our connected, data-swamped society, the time for some of the most impactful discoveries is likely to take longer, as good ideas now may have a longer journey out of the lab before they can bubble through to the popular consciousness.

Take a read through the article and see what you think. I have to say I’ve got no idea how Patrick has time for such things whilst also running a billion-dollar startup…If you’ve not heard much about him before, I definitely recommend following him on Twitter and checking out any of the podcasts where he chats about his influences (the Farnham Street episode is a good starter).