Why is it important: is science better when it destroys or when there are only gradual improvements of previous knowledge? This topic was analyzed in a recent study, and it seems that researchers have spent recent years improving things rather than trying to revolutionize everything.
According to a study by Russell Funk, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the evidence suggests that the level of “subversion” in scientific research declined significantly in the 2000s compared to the last half century.
Funk and his colleagues focused on citation data taken from 45 million manuscripts and 3.9 million patents published between 1976 and 2010. to quote the study itself.
The researchers used citation data to calculate a new measure of subversion, which they called the “CD index,” with values ranging from -1 (least subversive) to 1 (most subversive). The study claims that the average CD index underwent a sharp decline of more than 90% between 1945 and 2010 and more than 78% between 1980 and 2010.
The study takes into account potential differences in citation methods and other factors existing in different fields of research and types of patents, and emphasizes that the apparent decline in revolutionism seems to affect all types of research and scientific work.
The study also took into account the most common verbs used in manuscripts, and it was found that words that cause creation or fundamental discoveries (“to produce”, “to define”, etc.) were more often used in the 1950s than in the 2010s. In recent years, researchers have preferred words that emphasize gradual progress, such as “improve” or “improve.”
Previous research has already suggested that scientific innovation has slowed down in recent decades, but the new work by Funk and his colleagues follows a data-driven approach when considering trends. Yang Yin, a social scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, emphasizes that breakthrough science is not always good, and incremental science is not necessarily bad.
Yin cites the first direct observation of gravitational waves, a landmark discovery that was both revolutionary and a product of step-by-step science. Ideally, “healthy” scientific progress should provide a combination of both gradual and breakthrough research. John Walsh, a science and technology policy specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said that “in a world where we are concerned about the validity of the results, it would be nice to have more replication and reproduction.”
As for the reasons for the decline in the destructive index in scientific research, the study does not yet provide definitive answers. Potential explanations include a much larger number of researchers working today compared to the 1940s, or larger research groups that are more common today and more likely to produce incremental than disruptive science.