The timidity of modern science
New discoveries decline as scientists become unwilling to rock the boat
A recent article in the journal Nature, “‘Disruptive’ science has declined — and no one knows why,” describes new research into a trend that’s had scientists worried for a while, the disappearance of revolutionary science. It states:
“Data from millions of manuscripts show that, compared with mid-twentieth-century research, that done in the 2000s was much more likely to push science forward incrementally than to veer off in a new direction and render previous work obsolete.”
But is it really true that “no one knows why”? The article does cite one possible explanation — the emergence of large research teams has been shown to “produce incremental (rather) than disruptive science” — and leaves it at that. But are there really no other feasible explanations for the downward trend? And if Nature doesn’t have any ideas, does anyone?
The authors of a 2019 piece from Scientific American do. Their article, “What’s Lost When Research Is Driven Primarily by Funding,” makes a clear case for why scientists have become less daring. Their subtitle says it all: “Productivity-oriented ‘science on demand’ leads to caution and conformity.”
Their argument is that the source of funding matters. Over the last half century, investment in scientific research has skyrocketed. But with this new influx of money, the ethic of discovery (and with it the idea of “pure” science) has largely been replaced by the ethic of productivity.
The old image was focused on discovery and had a view of scientists as more or less autonomous inquirers. We can call it the liberal theory of science… With the Manhattan Project, things changed. Scales grew — big science and big budgets arrived. And careers changed with the first glimmers of team science, operating with massive technology. Big science meant big money, and big money meant a need to justify the expenditure.
…But with investment came accountability. The use of metrics to rate universities, and the ways in which metrics filter down to the individual scientist, actively constrains choices about what to study, and not only that: decisions about how to study something are constrained through and through by the expectations of others, by institutional review boards, by funders and by journals. A large part of science, outside universities in the private sector, is constrained by the realities of investment financing and regulatory acceptance.
Why is it so hard to see that forcing scientists to cater to the desires of funders, and then swamping them with paperwork, is going to kill initiative? Can we not sense how it suffocates creativity? Can we not feel how true scientific exploration can best be pursued in freedom?
The fact that people lose inspiration when they’re forced to chase a paycheck or do another’s bidding is well known in the fields of psychology and business. Daniel Pink wrote an insightful book on this topic over a decade ago, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in which he showed just how significant autonomy is when it comes to people’s motivation to work.
Pink’s thesis was simple: when a person is intrinsically motivated to do their work (when they do it out of themselves because they love it), as opposed to extrinsically motivated (they only do it because of a reward or punishment), then they’re far more creative, efficient, and productive.
This isn’t to say we must immediately tear down all twisted financial incentives and unnecessary regulations tomorrow. Instead we have to learn to see what leads to health and what doesn’t — and then start going in the direction of health. And this means moving towards freedom in our scientific and cultural pursuits, not away from it.
(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. For Part 2, which looks at healthy ways to fund science and culture, see the upcoming article.)