Is science nearing an end of practical progress?

2 minute read

An article in The Atlantic by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen asks why it seems like scientific progress is slowing down: “Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck”.

The problem of diminishing returns is mentioned nowhere in the 2018 report of the National Science Foundation, which instead talks optimistically of “potentially transformative research that will generate pioneering discoveries and advance exciting new frontiers in science.” Of course, many scientific institutions—particularly new institutions—do aim to find improved ways of operating in their own fields. But that’s not the same as an organized institutional response to diminishing returns.
Perhaps this lack of response is in part because some scientists see acknowledging diminishing returns as betraying scientists’ collective self-interest. Most scientists strongly favor more research funding. They like to portray science in a positive light, emphasizing benefits and minimizing negatives. While understandable, the evidence is that science has slowed enormously per dollar or hour spent. That evidence demands a large-scale institutional response. It should be a major subject in public policy, and at grant agencies and universities. Better understanding the cause of this phenomenon is important, and identifying ways to reverse it is one of the greatest opportunities to improve our future.

The entire piece is an example of why fundamental physics is a bad model for the scientific enterprise as a whole. A small category of physicists may be spinning their wheels, but other areas of science are going strong.

I know that this is an objection that Collison and Nielsen discuss in their article. They specifically suggest that advances like CRISPR that are in the news today in biology are no more significant than past advances in biology.

In a sense, I cannot disagree. In genetics the basic observations of people like Mendel, Fisher, and Haldane formed a series of effective discoveries based on accessible mathematics and observations that might be made on any number of systems. A similar series of discoveries that could be achieved by monks and algebra is unlikely to be repeated in the future. Today’s theoretical population geneticists are exploring deeper and more complicated holes beyond the simplified models of evolution that to a first approximation may describe many small datasets.

But to be realistic, very complicated models have proven necessary to describe the inheritance of most human phenotypes, and we have not yet reached the point where we understand how to apply whole genome data to most questions. So these areas may be less “fundamental” but they are no less important to practical facts. If this starts to sound more like engineering than basic science, that is precisely what marks scientific progress, I would say.

More to the point, in my field of science we are still making many basic observations for the first time. I have been fortunate to be one of the first scientists to grapple with an entirely new fossil hominin discovery. We are still making those new discoveries, and they are still revealing new and unexpected things about human prehistory.

Someday we may face diminishing returns in human evolution research. But we are very, very far from that day. The last twenty years have seen an enormous increase in the fossil record. We keep finding unexpected things. We still have a lot of places to look with our current approaches.

What it will take for scientific discovery to continue at a high pace across scientific fields is for us to continue to find new ways of exploring the universe.