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Why has science got so much more expensive without commensurate gains in understanding?

This blog considers two recent papers on the dynamics of scientific research: one in Nature and one by the brilliant physicist, Michael Nielsen, and the brilliant founder of Stripe, Patrick Collison, who is a very unusual CEO. These findings are very important to the question: how can we make economies more productive and what is the relationship between basic science and productivity? The papers are also interesting for those interested in the general question of high performance teams….

For as long as I have watched British politics carefully (sporadically since about 1998) these issues about science, technology and productivity have been almost totally ignored in the Insider debate because the incentives + culture of Westminster programs this behaviour: people with power are not incentivised to optimise for ‘improve science research and productivity’. E.g Everything Vote Leave said about funding science research during the referendum (including cooperation with EU programs) was treated as somewhere between eccentric, irrelevant and pointless by Insiders.

This recent Nature paper gives evidence that a) small teams are more disruptive in science research and b) solo researchers/small teams are significantly underfunded.

‘One of the most universal trends in science and technology today is the growth of large teams in all areas, as solitary researchers and small teams diminish in prevalence . Increases in team size have been attributed to the specialization of scientific activities, improvements in communication technology, or the complexity of modern problems that require interdisciplinary solutions. This shift in team size raises the question of whether and how the character of the science and technology produced by large teams differs from that of small teams. Here we analyse more than 65 million papers, patents and software products that span the period 1954–2014, and demonstrate that across this period smaller teams have tended to disrupt science and technology with new ideas and opportunities, whereas larger teams have tended to develop existing ones. Work from larger teams builds on more recent and popular developments, and attention to their work comes immediately. By contrast, contributions by smaller teams search more deeply into the past, are viewed as disruptive to science and technology and succeed further into the future — if at all. Observed differences between small and large teams are magnified for higher impact work, with small teams known for disruptive work and large teams for developing work. Differences in topic and research design account for a small part of the relationship between team size and disruption; most of the effect occurs at the level of the individual, as people move between smaller and larger teams. These results demonstrate that both small and large teams are essential to a flourishing ecology of science and technology, and suggest that, to achieve this, science policies should aim to support a diversity of team sizes

‘Although much has been demonstrated about the professional and career benefits of team size for team members, there is little evidence that supports the notion that larger teams are optimized for knowledge discovery and technological invention. Experimental and observational research on groups reveals that individuals in large groups … generate fewer ideas, recall less learned information, reject external perspectives more often and tend to neutralize each other’s viewpoints

‘Small teams disrupt science and technology by exploring and amplifying promising ideas from older and less-popular work. Large teams develop recent successes, by solving acknowledged problems and refining common designs. Some of this difference results from the substance of science and technology that small versus large teams tackle, but the larger part appears to emerge as a consequence of team size itself. Certain types of research require the resources of large teams, but large teams demand an ongoing stream of funding and success to ‘pay the bills’, which makes them more sensitive to the loss of reputation and support that comes from failure. Our findings are consistent with field research on teams in other domains, which demonstrate that small groups with more to gain and less to lose are more likely to undertake new and untested opportunities that have the potential for high growth and failure

‘In contrast to Nobel Prize papers, which have an average disruption among the top 2% of all contemporary papers, funded papers rank near the bottom 31%. This could result from a conservative review process, proposals designed to anticipate such a process or a planning effect whereby small teams lock themselves into large-team inertia by remaining accountable to a funded proposal. When we compare two major policy incentives for science (funding versus awards), we find that Nobel-prize-winning articles significantly oversample small disruptive teams, whereas those that acknowledge US National Science Foundation funding oversample large developmental teams. Regardless of the dominant driver, these results paint a unified portrait of underfunded solo investigators and small teams who disrupt science and technology by generating new directions on the basis of deeper and wider information search. These results suggest the need for government, industry and non-profit funders of science and technology to investigate the critical role that small teams appear to have in expanding the frontiers of knowledge, even as large teams rapidly develop them.’

Recently Michael Nielsen and Patrick Collison published some research on the question:

‘are we getting a proportional increase in our scientific understanding [for increased investment]?  Or are we investing vastly more merely to sustain (or even see a decline in) the rate of scientific progress?

They explored, inter alia, ‘how scientists think the quality of Nobel Prize–winning discoveries has changed over the decades.’

They conclude:

‘The picture this survey paints is bleak: Over the past century, we’ve vastly increased the time and money invested in science, but in scientists’ own judgement, we’re producing the most important breakthroughs at a near-constant rate. On a per-dollar or per-person basis, this suggests that science is becoming far less efficient.’

It’s also interesting that:

‘In fact, just three [physics] discoveries made since 1990 have been awarded Nobel Prizes. This is too few to get a good quality estimate for the 1990s, and so we didn’t survey those prizes. However, the paucity of prizes since 1990 is itself suggestive. The 1990s and 2000s have the dubious distinction of being the decades over which the Nobel Committee has most strongly preferred to skip, and instead award prizes for earlier work. Given that the 1980s and 1970s themselves don’t look so good, that’s bad news for physics.’

There is a similar story in chemistry.

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