President Obama wants “to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race,” he said in his State of the Union address. Yet, as the twenty-first century approached, science productivity in United States actually declined, plunging 29 percent between 1990 and 2001, according to a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) working paper.
The paper measured productivity in terms of the human and financial resources needed to publish science and engineering papers. The trends, according to the NSF, “are worthy of attention because they indicate a marked shift from a historical pattern.” However, the study elicited only one article, in Scientific American. I wrote it. And no one from a who’s who of American science would comment for the story, including:
Why? Bad news jeopardizes funding. For scientists and science administrators, the preferred storyline depicts science advancing and generating breakthroughs, the master narrative informing President Obama’s speech.
The president puts biomedicine at the top of his list for additional investment. Over the last quarter century, health-related research has grown to 52 percent of U.S. government, non-defense R&D spending, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) receiving the biggest tranche. However, according to the NSF, research productivity in medical and life sciences fell further than in any other field, by more than 30 percent between 1990 and 2001. During that period, the NIH budget nearly tripled, rising from $7.6 billion to $20.5 billion. Although we seem to be getting less for more, a spokesperson for NIH director Francis Collins declined to comment for the Scientific American piece and again for this article.
No comment came from the funders and overseers of science in Congress either. Representative Bart Gordon, who was chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology while I was reporting for Scientific American, was mum. Contacting additional members of Congress under the aegis of CJR produced the same result. The executive branch was no better. A spokesperson for Obama’s top science advisor, John Holdren, who heads the Office of Science and Technology Policy, declined requests for comment from both Scientific American and CJR.
The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Alice Huang, did comment for CJR, although she emphasized that she was not speaking for AAAS. Huang criticized the NSF’s strategy of simply tallying the number of research papers.
“Such correlations between quantity of publications and the resources [necessary to produce them], and not in quality [of the publications], are hard to explain and may indeed not be meaningful at all,” she wrote in an e-mail, adding that several factors might account for the decline. First, “investigations are more technically complex and thus more costly.” Second, researchers are spending time “on tasks that do not result in peer-reviewed scientific publications.”
Johns Hopkins University is the number one academic recipient of federal research funding, according to the NSF. Its vice provost for research, Scott Zeeger, said the NSF study was “not a measure of productivity we as a society care about.” Zeeger added that “it takes a long time to know the significance of a paper,” and science has become more difficult and expensive because of the “maturing of the research enterprise.” Zeeger pointed to the Large Hadron Collider in physics as an example of increased maturity and expense, a dynamic he said was “also true of biomedicine.” Zeeger nonetheless maintained that recent years have been “the most exciting times for science” and that “we will see more groundbreaking discoveries in the next ten to twenty years than ever before.”
Scientists aren’t the only ones that have been reluctant to explore the twenty-first century decline in research productivity. The media, from scientific journals to popular science and general news outlets, have also been mute concerning the NSF study.
In 2007, Science reported on an earlier NSF finding that the absolute number of academic papers published by U.S. authors had plateaued—but its article missed at least one key detail. According to the NSF, the number of published papers leveled off as spending grew, an important (as far as taxpayers are concerned) observation omitted by Science. Moreover, Science did not cover the more recent NSF paper. A spokesperson for AAAS, which publishes the journal, declined comment for Scientific American, saying “it appeared to be a remix of a prior report ” The spokesperson “checked with multiple people and nobody had any other reaction or knew what to make of the findings ”