Researchers have found that major scientific discoveries that changed the course of history have largely come to a standstill.
While the early and mid-20th century brought world-changing discoveries such as the structure of DNA, antibiotics, vaccines, satellites, and the transistor, there has been little equivalent progress in recent decades.
Instead, researchers make small incremental gains by reinforcing previous work without discovering anything that would cause a paradigm shift for society.
Experts at the University of Minnesota said modern research papers and patents are less likely to push science and technology in a new direction, meaning it will take longer for advances to be made. And they believe the shrinking of scientific fields may be to blame.
Professor Russell Funk, of the Carlson School of Management Associate at the University of Minnesota, said: “The increase in specialization means that researchers tend to develop a very deep understanding of a particular field.
“But breakthroughs often occur when people get different information from different sources.
“A healthy scientific ecosystem is one where there is a mix of disruptive discoveries and reinforcing improvements, but where the nature of research has changed. With incremental innovations becoming more common, it may take longer to make these important breakthroughs that move science forward more dramatically.”
To see whether innovative science wanes over time, the researchers measured the impact of a paper five years after it was published by looking at how often it was cited in other studies and how disruptive it was in its field.
They found that the impact of articles in all fields gradually decreased over time as less offensive articles were published.
The researchers initially believed that the slowdown may have occurred because all the “low-hanging fruit” had already been picked, leaving scientists with little groundbreaking information to discover.
However, they said it is unlikely that this will happen in all areas at once.
Instead, they point to the increased knowledge load that scientists have to learn, which means more time is spent training rather than pushing the boundaries of science.
They also warned that academics are sometimes faced with a “publish or perish” research culture, in which their success depends on the number of articles appearing in journals rather than the quality or innovation of research.
Technological developments waiting to be discovered
“A lot of innovation comes from trying new things or getting ideas from different fields and seeing what happens,” said co-author Michael Park, a PhD student at the University of Arizona.
“But if you’re worried about getting the paper on paper as fast as possible, that leaves much less time to read in depth and think about some of the bigger issues that could lead to these devastating breakthroughs.”
Despite the current trend, researchers say there are still major technological advances waiting to be discovered. For example, Google’s page rank algorithm, published in 1999, was critical in changing the way the web is used.
“There is a huge need for innovation to find answers to today’s most pressing challenges, from climate change to space exploration,” added Dr Funk.
“It’s clear that there are still great opportunities for disruptive innovation to happen and improvements for humanity.”
The research has been published in the journal Nature.