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.”
Hilts wondered if the study simply reflected changing authorship patterns rather than pointing to something important and fundamental, echoing the views of Alice Huang and Luke Timmerman (a 2006 Knight Fellow). That view seems dismissive, however. After all, journalism is an exercise in clarifying the unclear. The president of MIT, Susan Hockfield, declined to comment.
Unfortunately, with so few scientists and science journalists willing to discuss the matter, we may never get a firm understanding of the situation. The NSF has stopped tracking the productivity metrics used in its working paper and won’t apply them to more recent or upcoming years, according to Derek Hill, senior analyst at the NSF for science and engineering indicators. I asked Rolf Lehming, program director for the NSF’s annual report, Science & Engineering Indicators, whether publication productivity measurements would be added to the dashboard of indicators. He declined to comment on the NSF study.
As President Obama mashes down the R&D accelerator, any problems with the engine will go undetected if scientists and journalists are not willing to look under the hood. That science has gotten more expensive, and thus less productive, seems to be undisputed. If Johns Hopkins’s Zeeger is right that the rising costs come from the maturation of the scientific enterprise, research will not only fail to move forward exponentially, the coefficient of progress will actually fall. If that is the case, scientists and science reporters must seriously reconsider the master narrative of rapid, ineluctable advancement. These giant questions are worthy of coverage—and comment.
Clarification: The text of this article has been changed to reflect that Horgan said his “managers” at Scientific American, not his editors, felt his book would be “bad for business.” After the article was published, Horgan specified that he was referring to publishing and advertising staff.