When it comes to our quality of life and the robustness of our civilization, nothing matters more than science. Politics and gossip take a back seat. It is scientific breakthroughs that fundamentally change the course of human culture.
As you might imagine, a lot of people are very interested in the progress of science. Are things speeding up as the media likes to report? Or are they slowing down? Will the 21st century be a century of stagnation relative to the 20th? Or are we heading for a Star Trek future?
The foundation of science begins in school and college. Here you learn about concepts in chemistry like the C2H2 Lewis structure and mitosis in biology. Then, as you become more advanced, you take your degree and then begin a career in research.
What’s interesting, though, is how this process is changing. Fifty years ago, it was relatively easy to come up with a novel idea and use that to gain your Ph.D. Nowadays, it’s tough.
It’s not just a function of the number of publications. Sure – people have already done a lot of work. But the real issue here is we’re pushing up against boundaries. You can pump money into activity all you want, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get progress. Insight either happens, or it doesn’t.
For this reason, many commentators think that science might be slowing down. We have more researchers than ever before, but the rate of real-world technological progress isn’t equivalent. There might be more patent applications today than in the past, but that doesn’t mean civilization is changing. It just means that bureaucrats are busy.
If there is a slowdown, then it could be because we’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit. Making breakthroughs requires ever-increasing resources, or so the argument goes.
It’s debatable, though, whether that’s true. You could say that each breakthrough builds on the last and that the more you add to the sum of knowledge, the higher the capacity to make new discoveries. Remember, humanity has had tens of thousands of years to find out about nature. It was only once scientists got the ball rolling a few hundred years ago that knowledge snowballed.
The real problem with modern science is that it is a state program. And like all government-backed operations, it stagnates. The spirit of science is very much alive, but the incentives in the system aren’t there. Innovating, breaking the mould and taking risks all disappear when you leave science to the public authorities. And that’s a tragedy.
These days, when most people think about science, it isn’t university professors who come to mind. It is what companies like Google are doing. Very little of value comes out of the public sector. The private sector is now driving most of the changes that we see in the world around us.
Science, therefore, hasn’t run out of steam. But incentives need to change. The system requires a radical overhaul to move more work back into the private sector. Only then will we see the significant breakthroughs that we want.