The Atlantic reports on a revealing survey of top scientists who compared the importance of scientific discoveries in a “round robin tournament.” The survey finds:
The picture this survey paints is bleak: Over the past century we’ve vastly increased the time and money invested in science, but in scientists’ own judgment we’re producing the most important breakthroughs at a near-constant rate. On a per-dollar or per-person basis, this suggests that science is becoming far less efficient.
The authors, Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen, also note:
In the early days of the Nobel Prize, future Nobel scientists were 37 years old, on average, when they made their prizewinning discovery. But in recent times that has risen to an average of 47 years.
Perhaps scientists today need to know far more to make important discoveries. As a result, they need to study longer, and so are older, before they can do their most important work. That is, great discoveries are simply getting harder to make. And if they’re harder to make, that suggests there will be fewer of them, or they will require much more effort.
In a similar vein, scientific collaborations now often involve far more people than a century ago. When Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom in 1911, he published it in a paper with just a single author: himself. By contrast, the two 2012 papers announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle had roughly a thousand authors each. On average, research teams nearly quadrupled in size over the 20th century, and that increase continues today. For many research questions, it requires far more skills, expensive equipment, and a large team to make progress today.
The authors rightly ask: if scientific productivity slows down, will productivity slow down more broadly?