Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Wagon Brakes on Science?

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Perhaps you've seen a story in the media which includes the number of times a scientific paper has been cited by other scientists, presumably to show how important that paper is. What does this mean today?

An article written by science writer Faye D. Flam on changes in how science papers are cited was re-published in the Star Tribune (January 16, 2024). "Has the march of science slowed?" is behind a subscription paywall. I haven't been able to find it published anywhere else. 

Below is a brief summary.

Flam recalls a paper in Nature which made the claim "that disruptive scientific findings have been waning---since 1945."

The authors defined "disruptive scientific findings" as those that "marked a break with the past." In other words: breakthroughs.

One of the authors Russell Funk of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management thought one reason is "related to funding agents taking too few risks." Flam quickly notes that other scientists had different ideas, one of them is "that review articles" are easier to cite (find?) than going back to the original" studies.

Flam is a CalTech graduate and one example a scientist gave her was a paper that attracted a lot of column space on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIG0). It detected gravitational waves. She wrote that because it had been predicted by Einstein it was a technique paper -- "too novel to be disruptive. There were no earlier ways of doing what it does."

Most scientists she talked with thought science would benefit from more "long-shot" research, not all of which would pan out. One scientist mentioned three he thought were transformative --all in biology, and you are likely to name at least one of them. They were "the PCR chain reaction (polymerase chain reaction which is widely used today to amplify fragments of DNA (make more of them so that they can be worked with), "programming adult skin cells to act like stem cells, and CRISPR, a technique for "precisely editing genetic information in cells."

One suggestion on why fewer so-called disruptive papers are found is due to the cumulative growth of scientific information, noting the publication of more than a million papers a year. This has the effect of narrowing scientific disciplines which equips students ``to see smaller pieces of big problems."

In 1995, journalist John Horgan wrote a book titled "The End of Science," The subtitle is worth entering: "Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age." In short -- scientists are closing in on explaining nature. 
According to Flam, a post on Horgan's website, he says that the revolutionary insights have been made, citing "the theory of evolution, the double helix, quantum mechanics, relativity and the big bang. I would include plate tectonics, too. These are big ideas, supported by evidence and it suggests that the scientific mapping of the natural world "is unlikely to undergo significant changes."

Faye closes by noting that there is "plenty of science to be done" that will certainly be profound---especially in the applied sciences. And these problems are hard, "crying out for solutions" with applications. Two she includes are "curing disease" (consider cancer, viral diseases) and "climate change" where much of the solution is to be found in another set of underlying causes: social, economic and political. 
Yes, we've enough challenging stuff to do that affects the ability of the planet to maintain life on earth, including us.

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