Rate of disruptive tech and science discoveries has slowed over the decades, claims study

Makes the repetitive strain injury you got from hours of pipetting all worth it, hey lab scientists?

Far from an era of accelerating innovation and disruption, our current times manifest evidence of a slowing of discoveries and developments that change our thinking.

A study led by Carlson School of Management associate professor Russell Funk, shows that patents and papers are less likely to take humanity’s body of knowledge in new directions than they were decades ago.

Statistical analysis of 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents from across 6 decades published in Nature yesterday shows that for scientific papers, the decrease between 1945 and 2010 ranges from 91.9 per cent to 100 percent. For patents, the decrease between 1980 and 2010 ranges from 78.7 percent to 91.5 percent. Technology is not immune to the trend; in fact, it is among the group with the steepest decline in innovation.

The result is in stark contrast to tech industry claims. For example, KPMG asks: "As the evolution of disruptive technologies moves firmly into the mainstream do you have a perspectoive [sic] on how they might drive transformation in your business?"

Meanwhile, McKinsey has said, "Two decades of digital disruption – it is just getting started."

However, that's not what the evidence shows, the researchers found.

"We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics.

"We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors. Overall, our results suggest that slowing rates of disruption may reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of science and technology," the paper said.

The researchers call on policy-makers to reimagine how science is conducted with a move away from the "publish or perish" research culture, in which their success is based on the number of papers they publish or patents they develop. Agencies could implement funding changes to better support scholars' long-term careers.

Doctoral student Michael Park, who contributed to the paper, said: "A lot of innovation comes from trying new things or taking ideas from different fields and seeing what happens. But if you are worried about publishing paper after paper as quickly as you can, that leaves a lot less time to read deeply and to think about some of the big problems that might lead to these disruptive breakthroughs."

Understanding the decline in disruptive science and technology more fully permits a much-needed rethinking of strategies for organizing the production of science and technology in the future, the authors argue. ®

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