Stagnation and Scientific Incentives

On Low Hanging Fruit

Low Hanging fruit theory of stagnation is convenient as it absolves scientists, institutions, and analysts from any responsibility for the slowdown, it is likely wrong. One problem is that this explanation is not unique to our era.

Core Hypothesis

In this paper, we argue that the root of the slowdown in scientific progress lies in the more quotidian fact that scientific work on truly novel ideas that have the potential to develop into groundbreaking advances is no longer rewarded in the same way it once was.

Theories for problem

if also novelty metrics were utilized in scientist evaluation, scientists might pursue more innovative, riskier, projects.
Changes in scientific incentives→ slowing science innovation→ economy
Citations shifted behavior towards incremental science

  • Science requires exploration and play
  • Lifecycle of scientific ideas look like S curves
    • But the height of the S curve is variable, and it’s hard to know what its parameters are
  • Citations make scientists more conservative

    • Eugene Garfield developed the idea of citations as a measure of science productivity
      • ::How did it work before?::
    • The citation revolution started to gather steam in the 1970s.
      • In recent decades the largest scientific funding agency, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has also become less likely to support novel work despite its best efforts to the contrary.
  • Academic Search Engines solidify citation obsession

    • Only see citations, not what sort of exploration it was
    • ‘winners win harder’
    • ::The internet helps the tail if search is good and in this case it’s not::
    • Just counting papers is a possibility that wouldn’t help either
    • Science administrators are the ones focusing on the citations
    • Possible solution is to measure and present exploration level
    • Baseball players are evaluated on more dimensions than scientists: see Sabermetrics
  • Measureing exploration in science
    • Pushback that scientific stagnation is inevitable
    • Of course, to reward scientific novelty, we must first measure it 😭
    • Idea of Edge factor + Impact factor
      The third possible path forward could put science back on the path envisioned by Vannevar Bush by broadening how scientific productivity is measured and evaluated. On this path, in addition to scientific impact, we start measuring and evaluating research based on what kind of science it represents—whether the work is novel in that it tries out new ideas or more conventional in that it seeks to advance well-established ideas.





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