The end of invention
My BBC Radio 4 documentary on science slowing down
Last night I presented a documentary on BBC Radio 4 that asked whether innovation has been slowing down since the late 20th Century, and whether there are things we could do to change that. You can listen here, and it’s also available if you search “The End of Invention” in the BBC Sounds app. The licence fee really is a bargain when you think about it.
I was very happy with it overall – thanks largely to the excellent work of the producer, Jolyon Jenkins, as well as the team at the production company Novel. The process of making it was quite enjoyable. After being recruited to do a show on “stagnation”, on an outline by Novel the BBC had approved, I initially pitched an insane, sprawling “theory of everything” about why the world seems to be getting worse in important ways – with three overlapping theories of technological slowdown due to dysfunctional science, Baumol’s cost disease due, perhaps, to insufficient automation, and institutional sclerosis due to crappy win/lose political mechanisms and rent-seeking.
Obviously, we couldn’t manage this in the 28 minutes we had, so we focused on the first element, it was a struggle to fit even that in. We did hours and hours of interviews, including people we ended up not having space for like Anton Howes (who argued that innovation wasn’t slowing down at all, it was just “diluted” by the fact that our lives are already so complex and rich in choice compared to previous generations) and Samantha Jordan (whose startup aims to do for scientific research what Github has done for software development). It’s quite daunting to try to take the best 2 minutes from an hour-long conversation in a way that also builds up an overall narrative.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s inconclusive whether science and technology are slowing down on aggregate (I suspect they are, but can’t say for sure), but I think it’s pretty clear that scientist productivity – that is, the rate of new discoveries per scientist – is slowing. And fixing that is a no-brainer.
Here are two charts that support this point, from the first two papers linked below:
It’s possible that there is just some kind of hard limit to how much we can learn about the world, no matter how many extra minds we put on the case – which would suggest that we should massively cut science funding, because there’s just no point in spending more – but that is very counterintuitive, semi-nonsensical, and doesn’t really fit with the specific cases of things like chip and drug development, where it’s unlikely that we could just massively dial down the efforts we make to progress and still get the same results.
Or it may be that the low hanging fruit argument really is true, and we’ve discovered all the “easy” things to discover, but as I say in the documentary I suspect a few breakthroughs, in areas we don’t understand at all right now, could give us a flurry of follow on innovation. I definitely don’t think the low hanging fruit argument is intrinsically correct: ideas became easier to find for most of the industrial revolution, so I don’t think it’s obvious that we’ve passed the peak of that now, compared to other causes of the slow down.
I am very taken with the idea that there is a trade-off between accountability and discovery, because accountability breeds conformity and reduces variance. That is the implication of the idea that science progresses one funeral at a time. It seems probable to me that a model that was more random, or based on more competing patronage networks like DARPA, might give us more interesting discoveries than the current one.
Anyway, I had a good time, and I’m grateful for the feedback people have given, and the horror stories some scientists have told me about their own experiences with the dysfunctional system we’ve got. Finally, here are a few of the pieces that influenced my thinking:
“Are ideas getting harder to find?” by Nicholas Bloom, Charles I. Jones, John van Reenen, and Michael Webb.
“Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?” by Ben Southwood and Tyler Cowen.
“Escaping science’s paradox” by Stuart Buck.
“The speed of science” by Saloni Dattani and Nathaniel Bechhofer.
“We don’t know how to fix science” by Jose Luis Ricon.
“How to avoid borrowed plumes in academia” by Margit Osterloh and Bruno S. Frey.
Scientific Freedom by Donald Braben.
The work of the Arc Institute.
You should be able to listen to “The End of Invention” worldwide, but if you have any trouble accessing it, let me know and I’ll try to get that sorted for you.