We recognize these limitations: The survey results are striking, but provide only a partial picture. However, we’ll soon see supporting evidence suggesting that it’s getting much harder to make important discoveries across the board. It’s requiring larger teams and far more extensive scientific training, and the overall economic impact is getting smaller. Taken together, these results suggest strong diminishing returns to our scientific efforts.
When we report these diminishing returns to colleagues, they sometimes tell us that this is nonsense, and insist that science is going through a golden age. They point to amazing recent discoveries, such as the Higgs particle and gravitational waves, as evidence that science is in better shape than ever.
These are, indeed, astonishing discoveries. But previous generations also made discoveries that were equally, if not more, remarkable. Compare, for example, the discovery of gravitational waves to Einstein’s 1915 discovery of his general theory of relativity. Not only did general relativity predict gravitational waves, it also radically changed our understanding of space, time, mass, energy, and gravity. The discovery of gravitational waves, while enormously technically impressive, did much less to change our understanding of the universe.
And while the discovery of the Higgs particle is remarkable, it pales beside the pantheon of particles discovered in the 1930s, including the neutron, one of the main constituents of our everyday world, and the positron, also known as the antielectron, which first revealed the shadowy world of antimatter. In a sense, the discovery of the Higgs particle is remarkable because it’s a return to a state of affairs common in the first half of the 20th century, but rare in recent decades.
Another common response is from people who say science is in better shape than ever because their own field is making great progress. We hear this most often about artificial intelligence (AI) and the CRISPR gene-editing technology in biology. But while AI, CRISPR, and similar fields are certainly moving fast, there have always been fields just as hot or hotter through the entire history of modern science.
Consider the progress of physics between 1924 and 1928. Over that time, physicists learned that the fundamental constituents of matter have both a particle and a wave nature; they formulated the laws of quantum mechanics, leading to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; they predicted the existence of antimatter; and many other things besides. As one of the leading protagonists, Paul Dirac, said, it was a time when “even second-rate physicists could make first-rate discoveries.”
For comparison, major discoveries in AI over the past few years include an improved ability to recognize images and human speech, and the ability to play games such as Go better than any human. These are important results, and we’re optimistic that work in AI will have a huge impact in the decades ahead. But it has taken far more time, money, and effort to generate these results, and it’s not clear they’re more significant breakthroughs than the reordering of reality uncovered in the 1920s.