What impedes substantive progress?

It is widely discussed, most prominently by Alberts et al., that the current academic culture is increasingly suppressing the creativity, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries. A similar sentiment reverberates in this article by Peter Thiel, Technology Stalled in 1970, on the incremental developments of technologies by entrepreneurs, traditionally associated with bold, original and ambitious undertakings. Why is that? What hinders the bold, creative undertakings required for substantive progress?

This simple why question has a complex answer. It could be that at the current stage of technological development, many incremental improvements are easily accessible while the big conceptual questions and the substantial technological improvements are rather inaccessible. It could be that our culture has increasingly myopic time–horizon and prioritizes incremental risk–averse projects with short–term returns over longer–term visionary and riskier projects. It could be the increased competition, though I would argue that creative, non-obvious projects may be a winning competitive strategy. It could be a combination of all these factor and many more not mentioned above. Any suggestions?

The factor that I want to focus on is this: The tendency to portray rather incremental progress as a great breakthrough. A common example of this tendency in biomedical research is performing a well-established type of measurement on a larger scale than ever before and advertising the results as a “great breakthrough”, sometimes codified in prizes. It is usually decent research resulting in a large and useful dataset. It also saps resources and talent away from the more creativeSuperman_Inflatable_Suit research that is more justifiably described as a breakthrough and that is more likely to result in a non-trivial conceptual advance in our understanding. The examples of mediocre improvements of commercial technologies that are advertised as great breakthroughs are even more numerous; in fact, developed nations spend sizable fractions of their GDPs on this kind of make–believe advertisement. It is this misleading advertisement, both in basic scientific research and in commercial technologies that makes incremental, sometimes mediocre, improvements a viable strategy to achieving make–believe greatness. The more we dismiss and suppress misleading advertisement, the more we will encourage the creativity, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries and to significantly improve commercial technologies; this way we can incentivize and facilitate substantive progress.

3 thoughts on “What impedes substantive progress?

  1. I agree that most science these days is incremental… but that is the very nature of most progress, as I’m guessing was the case through the ages. Big breakthroughs are rare almost by definition and thus hard to quantify. People with breakthrough ideas that are out of the mainstream have always had to struggle for acceptance, e.g., Galileo. What objective evidence is there that big breakthroughs are occurring less frequently than before?

    I do agree completely that overhyping of pretty incremental stuff is fairly annoying and probably worse than it was a few decades ago. I’m worried that many trainees have a hard time seeing that most work is incremental (and often not insightful) because training these days can be so focused on generating hype. In particular, generating hype on a genome-wide scale… 🙂

    I wonder how much of our current culture in biomedical research comes from a particular style of research in the 80s that is perhaps not as applicable these days:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Arjun,

      Indeed, we have no simple way of quantifying globally and objectively how creative and innovative research is nowadays, and the majority of research has always been incremental. These are very good points! That being said, contemporary research does seem (potentially misleadingly) more incremental, especially if we normalize per paper rather than per unit time. More importantly, it does not have to be true that research nowadays is more incremental than it used to be for us to consider how to make it more progressive and substantive. I know of colleagues and students who started their projects with the intention of delivering a rather incremental, albeit fashionable, publishable unit rather than with the intention/hope/aim of answering a conceptual question. I understand there are pressures and reasons for that. To the extent that we reduce them (we will never eliminate them), we will increase our chance of making substantive progress and enrich the scientific literature.

      Sometimes, the data do fall into a single neat “story” with a single unequivocal interpretation but that is a rather rare exception nowadays. I agree that the pressure to present results in such storytelling form creates much distortion and enjoyed your post. This article by Yarden Katz makes eloquent arguments on this topic and spurred much debate and controversy.


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