Science is no longer what it used to be. Now, although much more research is done, discoveries are less disruptive that in the past Patents serve, in the best of cases, to consolidate something that already existed. yeah I know there are no advances that manage to blow up previous knowledge as happened, for example, with the discovery of the double helix of DNA. This is the forceful premise that defends, with more than a hundred years of data in hand, an analysis posted this wednesday in the scientific magazine ‘Nature’. With the publication of this article, the debate is served. Is less invented now than before?

The study analyzes data from 45 million of these scientific studies and almost four million patents of the last sixty years. From there, the «disruptive index» of these publications was analyzed. That is, the tendency to cite these documents in subsequent studies to see if, indeed, they had managed to carry out the research in new ways. The conclusion? That now more research is being done than ever but, paradoxically, the scientific advances are no longer as groundbreaking as before.

«The very nature of research is changing,» he explains. russell funk, a professor at the University of Minnesota and first author of this analysis. «We are increasingly accustomed to seeing incremental innovations that does not advance that drives science drastically», adds the researcher. In this sense, the analysis maintains that current scientific advances are more in line with help improve the ‘status quo’ of existing scientific knowledge but already they can’t turn what would be missing to take science and technology in new directions.

The data provided by the analysis are clear. Between 1945 and 2010, the «index of disruption» of scientific articles has fallen by 91% in the social sciences and 100% in the physical sciences. In it patent case, between 1980 and 2010 this indicator has decreased by 78.7% in computer science and by 91.5% in the field of medicine and pharmacy. Is trend is observed in all disciplines: from life sciences to biomedicine and technology. But what is this phenomenon due to? Was the science of before better than the current one? Why are there no longer ‘Copernican twists’ in research?

Is there no groundbreaking science anymore?

The decline of «disruptive science», the authors of this analysis argue, is not due to a drop in the quality of scientific work itself. in fact Never has it been researched and published as much as now.. So in order to understand this paradigm shift, it is necessary to investigate more structural causes. The first hypothesis proposes that in the past it was «easier» to achieve groundbreaking results because science was not «as mature» as it is now. Likewise, one could also defend the idea that the most disruptive discoveries have already been produced and that, thanks to them, science can advance along the same path.

Does this mean that science can no longer be groundbreaking? «This article raises a very interesting debate because, deep down, you are wondering how we define the impact of science. Talking about disruption is interesting, but it is not the only criterion to take into account», explains merce segarra, professor of chemistry and vice-rector for knowledge transfer at the University of Barcelona (UB). «The way of doing science has radically changed in the last decades. Now everything goes much faster. Researchers work in a different context. And the objectives are also changing,» reflects the expert.

Fish that bites its tail

The second hypothesis to explain the ‘decline of disruption’ in science addresses one of the structural problems of current science: the «publish or die» («publish or perish») that forces researchers to continually publish to ‘survive’ in the academy. «Scientists are forced to continually publish because, in the current system, it’s the only way to get funding for further research. Before, maybe you could afford the ‘luxury’ of only publishing when you had something more revolutionary, but now you have to post any little progress to justify that your work is on the right track and thus get more funding. It is a fish that bites the tailSegarra says.

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The third hypothesis put forward by the article, and perhaps the most controversial, argues that the fact that scientists are increasingly specialized difficult to «think outside the box» to achieve something groundbreaking. Segarra also partly agrees on this. «It is true that the more you specialize, the more you can advance in a very specific area but, at the same time, you lose a bit of the external perspective. It is also true that more and more attempts are being made promote lines of transdisciplinary research to unite the knowledge, interests and perspectives of experts from different areas», comments the scientist.

The future of scientific research involves addressing all these debates and, as Segarra explains, refocusing its objectives. «There is more and more consensus that science should above all be useful for solving society’s problems. For this we need to open a debate on how to redirect scientific work to respond to today’s challenges and help create a better world«, reflects the expert.