The disruptive science that changes the way we see the world is about to disappear

The life of a scientist is dedicated to removing the veils that cover reality. That’s why we use the word discover to describe a scientific success. But not all discoveries are equally important. Some change the way we see the world and are called disruptive discoveries. A classic example is the discovery of Galileo of which the Land revolves around Sun and not the Sun revolving around the Earth.

Galileo lifted the veil that covered the structure of the Solar System. After him, the astronomy took another route. It’s a shocking discovery. But most discoveries are incremental. A good example is the work of naturalists who spent centuries discovering and describing new species of plants and animals, and continue to do so today. Each new species discovered adds a brick to our knowledge of the planet’s biodiversity, but does not radically change our view of reality. These are called incremental discoveries.

You might imagine that incremental science is less important, as it is arguably less glamorous and unlikely to win an award. Nobel prize. But the truth is, disruptive discoveries depend on the accumulated knowledge from hundreds or thousands of incremental discoveries to come to fruition.

A good example is the discovery made by Darwin. Hundreds of scientists had described the differences and similarities between species and the differences in shape between living beings of the same species. It was upon this collection of incremental discoveries that Darwin relied to propose an explanation of how these differences emerged and became fixed, generating new species through natural selection. And that’s how the Evolution theorya disruptive discovery that changed the course of Biology.

In recent decades, with the increasing professionalization of scientists’ careers and with the evaluation of scientists based on the number of published discoveries, the suspicion arose that fewer and fewer scientists were seeking disruptive discoveries and that most scientists were going down the road of progressive science. , where the risks and challenges are less. But how to measure if this is true?

Disruptive discoveries, such as Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, depend on the knowledge amassed from hundreds or thousands of incremental discoveries to come to fruition.
Disruptive discoveries, such as Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, depend on the knowledge amassed from hundreds or thousands of incremental discoveries to come to fruition.

Photography: Jonne Roriz/Estadao

The novelty is that a group of scientists has discovered a method capable of distinguishing disruptive scientific work from incremental scientific work. It is an index that measures the disruption of each job. Using this methodology, they calculated the disruption of each of the 45 million scientific papers published over 65 years (1945-2010). This took a brutal IT effort, but it was well worth it.

The Disruptiveness Index involves complex math and statistics, but the principle is easy to understand. Each scientific work cites in its bibliography works previously published and on which the scientist relied. To calculate a paper’s disruption rate, the scientists mapped how scientific papers published five years later cited the original work. Imagine any work published in 1980. What they did was identify in the databases of works published in 1985 (five years later) everything that quoted the 1980 work. And analyze in this collection of works how the work was cited. work from 1980.

When a work is disruptive and redirects a scientific field, it is cited as the source of the idea and the earlier work is forgotten. Example: after Galileo, whoever wrote about Solar system he was referring to Galileo and not to those who believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth.

In the case of an incremental work, it will be cited together with the work that preceded it. Example: A scientist who discovers a new hummingbird in 1985 will cite in his work the hummingbird discovery made in 1980 and all hummingbirds discovered in the last few centuries. That difference in how a job is cited five years later is the job disruption index. And this index has been calculated for each of the 45 million scientific papers published over 65 years, in all fields of science.

With these data in hand, the scientists created a graph where they placed, over the years, the average index of all the works published in each year. What they observed is that the average disruption dropped between 95% and 99% over that 60-year period across all branches of science. That is, today a small fraction of the scientific papers published each year is truly disruptive.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as the total amount of work published by scientists each year has increased nearly 10-fold in those 60 years. By looking at the absolute number of disruptive works published each year (and not the fraction of the total), it was possible to verify that the amount of disruptive works has remained constant (a few thousand per year) over the 60 years.

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This means that the growth of scientific production in these decades has occurred through an increase in incremental work without the disruptive ones that accompany this growth. As a result, the percentage of disruptive jobs has plummeted over time.

The possible reasons for this change are complex, but certainly involve the evaluation of scientists preferentially for the quantity of published papers and not for the originality and disruptiveness of the papers. It also involves funding agencies’ preference for incremental projects and the aversion to the risk inherent in funding and executing disruptive work.

Now that we know about this shift in the nature of science, two big questions need to be answered. Is this increase in the incremental amount of work healthy? And how to encourage more disruptive projects to be funded and executed by the scientific community. This is an issue that has been attacked by funding agencies in Europe and the United States.

In Brazil, a model that favors this type of project has been put into practice since Serrapilheira Institute, which only funds projects with disruptive potential. In São Paulo, the FAPESP he moved timidly in that direction.

More information: Documents and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature 2023

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