The age of quiet science: why a new Einstein does not appear

The age of quiet science: why a new Einstein does not appear

Vaccines against the new coronavirus in record time, artificial intelligences that hold a conversation or create art, space telescopes that see the origins of the universe, the entire world connected by the Internet… There is no doubt that we live in the most innovative era of the History. The scientific production is immense: more than a million scientific articles are published every year throughout the world. However, fewer and fewer are able to break with the established and change the rules of the game. This is suggested by a large study recently published in the journal ‘Nature’. After analyzing millions of scientific articles and patents in six decades, from 1945 to 2010, he concludes that the contributions of modern scientists tend to be incremental, they build on what is already known, but they rarely represent a knock on the knowledge table. . “A disruptive job is one that destroys existing ideas instead of consolidating them,” Russell Funk, co-author of the study and researcher at the University of Minnesota (USA), told this newspaper. An irrefutable example of recent times is the DNA double helix discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. These three letters contained the secret of life and laid the foundations of modern biology and genetics. Another case is the original Google algorithm, which classifies web pages according to the number of links they receive and the importance of the pages that link to them. They are the exception. Funk and his colleagues interpreted that if a study was highly disruptive, subsequent ones would be more likely to cite it, and less likely to cite their references. Using citation data from 45 million scientific articles and 3.9 million patents, the authors calculated a Disruption Index (CD), with values ​​ranging from -1 for the least disruptive work to 1 for the most disruptive. . Surprisingly, this rate decreased by more than 90% between 1945 and 2010 for scientific articles and by more than 78% between 1980 and 2010 for patents. The same trend was observed in all the fields analyzed. This does not mean that science is of poorer quality or less impressive -continuist science is also awarded the Nobel Prize-, but rather that it consolidates what is already known instead of discussing it and opening new paths. The measurement of gravitational waves and the vaccines against Covid-19 are extraordinary, but to a large extent they are based on what was already known The absolute number of radically innovative works does not decrease, but it does represent a smaller proportion of the total. In addition, research in what popular way can be perceived as disruptive, such as those that led to the vaccines against Covid-19 and the discovery of gravitational waves (deformations in the fabric of space-time that travel throughout the universe), for Funk they have “part of routine science.” Einstein predicted gravitational waves a century ago, and vaccines are an application of work in molecular biology dating back to Watson and Crick. On the contrary, other really groundbreaking investigations can be ignored by the general public. Funk cites as an example a technique to insert genes into human and animal cells instead of bacteria, achieved in 1983. It probably doesn’t sound like anything to you and it is very difficult to find information about it in the media, but the patent set the course for biotechnology and it was extremely lucrative for its authors and Columbia University, who earned hundreds of millions of dollars from it. Funk’s work does not in itself explain why science has rested on its laurels, but the researcher points to the way scientists work, pressured by the need to publish more and more to gain relevance. This “probably leads them to focus on a narrower slice of existing knowledge, which can contribute to less disruption,” he says. Likewise, he blames the growth in the size of the teams. A victim of his success, Luis Sanz-Menéndez, a research professor at the Institute for Public Policies and Goods (IPP-CSIC), agrees. In his opinion, «the incentive structure of the races, which pushes people to publish a lot and quickly; instability in funding sources or excessive temporary employment in research” may be behind it. The causes “are multiple and complex,” he reflects, “but they tell us that the giants that push the frontiers of knowledge and technology are few, compared to those that make incremental or cumulative contributions.” In Spain, it is difficult to do disruptive science. “In order for this type of highly innovative study to take place, unique organizational conditions are needed: high flexibility, medium-term financing, moderate levels of bureaucratization…”, explains Sanz-Menéndez. But the Spanish system lacks them and “focuses too much on individuals and their careers.” The journalist and science writer John Horgan already argued that the era of great discoveries had ended in the book ‘The End of Science’ (The end of science, 1996). He pointed out that if there are no longer such revolutionary ideas as the theory of evolution, the double helix, quantum mechanics, relativity or the Big Bang, it is because all those discoveries “are true” and are unlikely to undergo significant changes. Science, in other words, “is a victim of its own success.” José Manuel Sánchez Ron, a physicist, historian of science and academic at the Royal Spanish Academy, came to a similar conclusion. “Historically, paradigm shifts (for example, from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics) took a long time to occur, and we are now exploiting the ‘paradigms’ provided by Einstein’s relativistic physics, quantum physics, and DNA. These are examples of disruptive science. More recent are the open problems of what black holes and dark matter really are, or the consequences of recombinant DNA (biotechnology). Also confirmation of quantum entanglement », he explains. 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