In research, discoveries less and less revolutionary

After the climatic, financial and geopolitical crises, now scientific research seems to be showing signs of weakness. Which could darken the prospects for innovation… According to a study published in Natureon January 4, world scientific production would be less and less revolutionary, or « disruptive » to use the words of the authors.

Researchers from the universities of Minnesota and Arizona studied, on 45 million research articles and 3.9 million patents, since 1945, the evolution of an index, varying from – 1 to + 1, called “disruption”, baptized “CD” – to consolidate / destabilize -, which they had proposed in 2017.

The report is terrible, it is the collapse. In each discipline (life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, technology), the average index of articles fell between 1945 and 2010, dropping, for example, for the social sciences from 0.52 to 0.04: a decrease of more than 90%. For physics, it’s even 100% for articles. Regarding patents, depending on the discipline, this drop varies from 78% to 91%.

A decline in several areas

“Previous work had shown the slowdown in certain areas, such as semiconductors or agriculture. We wanted to take more height and see these evolutions through several themessays Russell J. Funk, co-author at the University of Minnesota. We were surprised to see this decline in so many areas of science and technology. »

Reality or mirage? Views already diverge. Surprised themselves by the effect of the study, placed on the front page of Nature under the title “Net losses”, the authors multiplied the tests to prove the solidity of their results. They thus carried out the same calculations with other databases of articles than the reference used, called “Web of Science”, such as PubMed, JSTOR, Microsoft Academic Graph… Same decline observed.

They also restricted their analysis to the largest journals, Nature, Science et PNAS, to see if the disease also affects the elite. Same fall. Probing the lexicon of titles and summaries of articles led them to observe changes, such as the decline in the diversity of vocabulary, signs of a lack of “revolution”.

At the same time, the authors are sticking out the stick to get beaten, or at least to tone down the strength of their own conclusion! To understand this, we must return to the definition of the disruption index, CD. Each article or each patent presents a list of bibliographical references which mentions previous research and therefore shows what a new result is based on: researchers lean on the shoulders of giants to make progress. These “citations” are already used to develop “quality” indicators: the more an article is cited, the more important it is considered. In 2017, Russell J. Funk and his then director, Jason Owen-Smith, of the University of Michigan, used these citations to estimate the disruptive nature of an article or a patent.

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