Those who believe science is advancing fastest may be least likely to recognize or acknowledge disconfirming evidence. The Singularity Hub is a blog and news network covering science and technology developments it expects to lead to the “singularity,” a moment, following exponential advances, “when we will transcend current intellectual and biological limitations and initiate an intelligence and information explosion beyond imagining.” I asked the Hub’s editor, Keith Kleiner, if there was a way to square the NSF study’s findings with exponential advance. Kleiner declined to comment.
A more widely read web publication, Xconomy, also posits a form of exponential progress, and did not cover the NSF study. Few people do their jobs better than the site’s national biotechnology editor, Luke Timmerman (recently named one of FierceBiotech’s top five writers, along with journalists from Forbes and The New York Times), and even he was not initially aware of the study. After reviewing it, however, his comments echoed those of AAAS president Alice Huang.
“I think it’s possible this could be an important and worrisome trend, but I’m not sure tallying the number of published articles is the best way to look at the question of research productivity,” he said.
Xconomy targets a readership of entrepreneurs, business and technology executives, venture capitalists, and university researchers and officials. So long as deals are happening, there seems to be little impetus to audit the value of basic research. When I asked Timmerman if faith in the exponential economy might create a coverage blind spot, he didn’t reply.
Xconomy, in addition to earning revenue from traditional online advertising, also derives income from an underwriting program which allows companies and other institutions to be listed as partners on the Xconomy site and receive other benefits such as participating in networking events. Thus Xconomy not only reports on science, technology, and industry, but facilitates interactions between them.
Similar dynamics obtain at The Economist which, with its events and intelligence arms, represents a kind of scaled-up, global version of Xconomy.
The Economist is one of the few publications that have lately explored scientific publication trends. In an article about international trends described in a recent UNESCO report, the magazine explained the age-old scientific dominance of North America, Europe, and Japan:
They spent the most, published the most and patented the most. And what they produced fed back into their industrial, military and medical complexes to push forward innovation, productivity, power, health and prosperity.
This basic model still works, the article implied, even if “the old scientific powers are starting to lose their grip.” When The Economist’s article went to press, however, the NSF study hadn’t been published. Subsequently, I asked the magazine’s health correspondent, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, about the productivity decline in the life sciences described by the NSF. He declined to comment.
The Economist’s coverage of biomedical research has been resolutely upbeat and undaunted. A dozen years ago, in a survey of the pharmaceutical industry entitled “Horn of Plenty,” it pronounced that “New genetic knowledge means more, and more effective, drugs.” However, by the end of 2000, the magazine no longer considered the genome as the holy grail of medicine, transferring its hopes to the proteome: “Know it and you will be a long way towards knowing how bodies really work.”
By 2010 the picture had only become more complicated, involving much more than genes and proteins. “Someone should have taken note” that “junk” DNA and RNA also play important roles, The Economist chided last year. Who should have taken note is not clear, but the oversight did not diminish the magazine’s optimism. Yes, “the pipelines are empty,” but not to worry. “Genomics has not yet delivered the drugs, but it will,” the article’s headline reassured readers.
Science and technology have turned in spectacular results, a performance which could reasonably be expected to continue. Questioning this assumption, however, elicits frowns or even termination from editors of science-focused media. In 1996, for example, veteran science writer John Horgan assembled his writings for Scientific American into a book titled The End of Science. It was the end of his job. Horgan says his “managers” thought his book was “bad for business” (though he has since resumed writing for the magazine.)
The nature of the NSF’s productivity report deters coverage by science journalists, according to Phil Hilts, director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT. The story merits coverage, he said, “but it is so unclear what might be happening [with research productivity], it dampens most reporters’ interest.”