Science and Technology are becoming less disruptive

A paper published on January 4, which has been widely referred in general media and shared in social networks, documents how papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time1, one key question long followed in this blog.

Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields.

The researchers analyse data on 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from six large-scale datasets across six decades, using the CD index2 that characterizes the consolidating or disruptive nature of science and technology.

if a paper or patent is disruptive, the subsequent work that cites it is less likely to also cite its predecessors; for future researchers, the ideas that went into its production are less relevant (for example, Pauling’s triple helix). If a paper or patent is consolidating, subsequent work that cites it is also more likely to cite its predecessors; for future researchers, the knowledge upon which the work builds is still (and perhaps more) relevant. The CD index ranges from −1 (consolidating) to 1 (disruptive). We measure the CD index five years after the year of each paper’s publication (indicated by CD5).

Fig. 2 Decline of disruptive science and technology. Op. cit.

The decline in disruptive science and technology is also observable using alternative indicators, like neologism:

disruptive papers and patents are likely to introduce new words (for example, words used to create a new paradigm might differ from those that are used to develop an existing paradigm). If disruptiveness is declining, we would expect a decline in the diversity of words used in science and technology

Fig. 3 Decline of disruptive science and technology is visible in the changing language of papers and patents. Op cit.

What is driving the decline in disruptiveness?

  • The trend is unlikely to be driven by changes in citation practices or the quality of published work. Rather, the decline represents a substantive shift in science and technology, one that reinforces concerns about slowing innovative activity.
  • Scientists and inventors face an increasing knowledge burden, which may inhibit discoveries and inventions that disrupt the status quo. The growth in publishing and patenting may lead scientists and inventors to focus on narrower slices of previous work. Relying on narrower slices of knowledge benefits individual careers, but not scientific progress more generally.
  • Despite large increases in scientific productivity, the sheer number of papers and patents with CD5 values in the far right tail of the distribution remains nearly constant over time. The stability observed in the sheer number of disruptive papers and patents suggests that science and technology do not appear to have reached the end of the ‘endless frontier
  • To promote disruptive science and technology, scholars may be encouraged to read widely and given time to keep up with the rapidly expanding knowledge frontier. Universities may forgo the focus on quantity, and more strongly reward research quality.
  • Understanding the decline in disruptive science and technology more fully permits a much-needed rethinking of strategies for organizing the production of science and technology in the future.

One would say that it’s very confortable to enjoy the views while standing on the shoulders of well known giants. Thomas Kuhn must be turning in his grave and, who knows, maybe planning a revolt.

____________________

(1) Park, Michael, Erin Leahey, and Russell J. Funk. ‘Papers and Patents Are Becoming Less Disruptive over Time’. Nature 613, no. 7942 (January 2023): 138–44. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05543-x.

(2) Funk, R. J. & Owen-Smith, J. A dynamic network measure of technological change. Manage. Sci. 63, 791–817 (2017).

Featured Image: Mark Lynch, Standing on the shoulders of giants

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