Where are the Innovations?
A study diagnoses a dramatic decline in the proportion of innovative scientific publications and patents. There is a lot of speculation about the reasons. On social media, reasons are quickly pointed out among the ranks of scientists: excessive bureaucracy, high production pressures, risk-averse funding, a research process marked by existential concerns – all these are pointed out as responsible for the fact that the proportion of Scientific discoveries dropped dramatically between 1945 and 2010.
The latter is the result of an analysis recently published by American scientists in the journal “Nature”, in which they examined 45 million publications and 3.9 million patents for their inventive power. To do this, they used a quantitative measure, whereby these studies are considered particularly innovative and are cited more often in later work than in earlier studies. Therefore, the underlying assumption is that disruptive science is setting new standards that will have a lasting impact on the field, rather than simply incrementally perpetuating previous research achievements.
With this indicator, a clear proportional decline in innovations was observed in all the editorial areas studied – life sciences, physical disciplines, social sciences and technology, and it is notable that the absolute number of innovative studies remained almost constant. The linguistic diversity of the publications also decreased over time, as well as the use of verbs related to innovation – for the authors, two substitutes for diminished inventive capacity.
Of course, the work also speculates about the causes. According to the authors, they could not be specific subjects in view of the heterogeneity of the results. Nor can the reason be the generalized drop in quality, because the result can be seen even if only the most respected journals are taken into account. Scholars try to rule out changes in scholarly publishing and citation practice by adjusting their analysis.
Instead, the explanation the study favors: the exponential growth of scientific knowledge means that researchers often consider only a very limited part of that knowledge for their work – thus limiting their own potential for innovations. The study states, “Drawing on small slices of existing knowledge benefits individual careers, but not scientific advancement in general.”
One can now ask to what extent this finding calls into question the usefulness of the scale used in the study itself.
For if a study’s citations do not necessarily depend on its quality, but if that study falls within the small knowledge sector of a social form known to the researcher, then the citation scale cannot measure innovation well. On the other hand, the explanation for the reactions to the study is relatively straightforward: at least it seems that dissatisfaction in the job search sector has increased significantly.