How We Broke Science

Why didn’t we get flying cars?

January 2023

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

Ok, so America hasn’t exactly been on a hot streak lately. The past few decades have given us more than our fair share of difficulties.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re on the ropes. For whatever setbacks there have been in politics, economics, or the culture, we’re still on the cutting edge of science.

Mapped the human genome.

Created COVID vaccines in record time.

Figured out how to knock asteroids out of the sky.

So, at the very least we can still say that we’re world leaders in…

…excuse me, I’m being handed an urgent message…

…Ah [$*%^], it turns out we broke science too.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

America, we’ve got a problem.

Yes, we like to think of ourselves as a hotbed of innovation — and in many ways we still are (though … not always for the best).

But, in reality, we may not be as cutting edge as we used to be. In fact, thinkers across the ideological spectrum are worried that America’s rate of scientific and technological innovation … may actually be slowing.

And … they kinda have a point.

Sure, there’s a lot of progress we can point to. Many of us are familiar, for example, with Moore’s Law, the principle that our computing power doubles roughly every two years.

But there are also some depressing counterexamples.

For instance, in medicine, there’s something known as Eroom’s Law. (And yes, they literally just wrote "Moore’s" backwards.)

Eroom’s law states that for every billion dollars spent on research & development, the number of new prescription drugs approved for release … has fallen by half about every nine years.i

And there are plenty of other scientific fields with similar problems. A survey of many of the world’s top physicists showed that they believe the rate of groundbreaking discoveries in their field … has been declining since the 1970s. ii

So, what’s going on here?

Well, one theory is that innovation is getting more difficult because we’ve already made all the easy discoveries. The remaining questions are just harder to solve. And … maybe?

But there’s good reason to be skeptical of that explanation. After all, it’s not a new argument. In 1894, the Nobel laureate physicist Albert Michelson said that the laws of physics had all pretty much been figured out and weren’t going to change.iii

He said that, in other words, a few years before … the theory of relativity.

There are a few other explanations for why we have an innovation problem, however, that may shed more light on the matter.

One part of the puzzle could be that we’re looking for scientific discoveries in the wrong places. Here’s what we mean: A lot of the biggest breakthroughs in science come from … well, there’s no easy way to say this, they come from screwing around.

Many of the innovations that transform society don’t actually come from scientists trying to solve immediate, specific problems. They come from scientists who are trying to solve abstract, seemingly obscure problems. And if that sounds like a waste of time, consider the following:

In the 1840s, the English mathematician George Boole was trying to use mathematics to build on Aristotle’s ideas about logic. (Sexy stuff, we know. Try to compose yourself.) It was considered about as obscure as scientific fields came. Long story short though: Without Boole’s work … no computers.

Your GPS system? It doesn’t exist without Einstein’s theory of relativity. For better or for worse.

In the ‘60s, biologists in Yellowstone were curious about how certain bacteria were able to survive the scalding temperatures in the park’s hot springs. What happened with their research in the ensuing decades was complicated, but let’s just put it this way: science-science-science and boom: The Human Genome Project.

This kind of curiosity-driven research is known as "basic science" — which seems mildly insulting to discoveries that occasionally revolutionize the world, but let’s roll with it — and, despite its transformational potential, we probably don’t do enough of it.

Because it can take so long to see results — meaning there’s often no immediate financial return — basic science relies in large part on funding from the government rather than private companies. But in recent decades, the share of federal R&D funding that goes to basic science has actually been shrinking.iv We’re putting fewer of our resources towards the research that might change the world.

But even if we increase funding, there may be a more basic problem at work here too: We’re not actually giving scientists the right incentives to find these kinds of miraculous breakthroughs.

Here’s the thing: One of the primary ways scientists are judged is by how often their research gets cited by other scientists. Which makes a certain amount of sense: Research is useful if other people find it useful.

But when it’s used as the main way to measure scientific accomplishments — a practice that even the creator of the citation method thought was a bad idea — it can lead to unintended consequences.

Here's the problem: Citations tend to be a bad way to judge basic science, which sometimes takes decades to show results. For example, one of the scientists behind the technology that eventually gave us the COVID vaccine actually got demoted in the 1990s — because she couldn’t get funding. Everyone thought the work was a dead end.v

As a result of the emphasis on citations, scientists will often gravitate to practical fields where citations are easier to come by, rather than truly pathbreaking ones where researchers can labor in obscurity for decades before a major breakthrough.vi

The result: More citations, fewer flying cars.

So, the bad news: We may have lost a bit of our edge. But the good news: There are clear steps to get it back. If we invest more money — and more professional prestige — in the kind of science that can change the world, there may be no problem too big for us to solve.

OK, except maybe this one.

Sources

  1. "Diagnosing the Decline in Pharmaceutical R&D Efficiency" (Jack W. Scannell, Alex Blanckley, Helen Boldon, Brian Warrington) — Nature Reviews Drug Discovery
  2. "Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck" (Patrick Collison, Michael Nielsen) The Atlantic
  3. "Light Waves and Their Uses/Lecture II" (A.A. Michelson) — Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
  4. "The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020" (Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins, Abigail Okrent) — National Science Foundation, figure 20
  5. "The Story of mRNA: How a Once-Dismissed Idea Became a Leading Technology in the COVID Vaccine Race" (Damian Garde) — STAT
  6. "Stagnation and Scientific Incentives" (Jay Bhattacharya, Mikko Packalen) — National Bureau of Economic Research

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Sources

  1. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery
    "Diagnosing the Decline in Pharmaceutical R&D Efficiency" (Jack W. Scannell, Alex Blanckley, Helen Boldon, Brian Warrington
  2. The Atlantic
    "Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck" (Patrick Collison, Michael Nielsen)
  3. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
    "Light Waves and Their Uses/Lecture II" (A.A. Michelson)
  4. National Science Foundation, figure 20
    "The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020" (Beethika Khan, Carol Robbins, Abigail Okrent)
  5. STAT
    "The Story of mRNA: How a Once-Dismissed Idea Became a Leading Technology in the COVID Vaccine Race" (Damian Garde)
  6. National Bureau of Economic Research
    "Stagnation and Scientific Incentives" (Jay Bhattacharya, Mikko Packalen)

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