Limits to Growth in Science Itself

Logistic functions are everywhere – hockey sticks always break eventually.

Geneticist Casey Bergman writes, about the state of science:

On a regular basis I see how the current system negatively affects the lives of talented students, post-docs and early-stage faculty. I have for some time wanted to write about my point of view on this issue since I see these trends as indicators of bigger changes in the growth of science than individuals may be aware of. I’ve finally been inspired to do so by a recent piece by Euan Ritchie and Joern Fischer published in The Conversation entitled “Cracks in the ivory tower: is academia’s culture sustainable?“, which I think hits the nail on head about the primary source of the current problems in academics: the deeply flawed philosophy that “more is always better”.

He asserts that the era of exponential growth in academic research is over, and attributes this conclusion “almost entirely derived from a book written by Derek de Solla Price entitled Little Science, Big Science“, a book which may be hard to track down. (It’s just the sort of thing that Amazon someone ought to scan and post. Is there some way to put in a request?) Anyway, Bergman writes

Price pointed out that the doubling time of the number of scientists is much shorter than the doubling time of the overall human population (~50 years). Thus, the proportion of scientists relative to the total human population has been increasing for decades, if not centuries. Price makes the startling but obvious outcomes of this observation very clear: either everyone on earth will be a scientist one day, or the growth rate of science must decrease from its previous long-term trends. He then goes on to argue that the most likely outcome is the latter, and that scientific growth rates will change from exponential to logistic growth and reach saturation sometime within 100 years from the publication of his book in 1963

Much more at Bergman’s blog entry. Very similar to arguments about post-growth economics.

Comments:

  1. The author uses today's technology or knowledge to predict future ("tomorrow") events or problems. Tomorrow has probably resolved the stated problem. Then new problems may evolve which are beyond our current knowhow. And, yes, perhaps we will all be scientists. Cheers, Werner

  2. It's always interesting to be reminded that the systems we're accustomed to are not legacies but have evolved in response to sometimes political events. We are now in a time when efforts are being made to cut back on information, which is sad. But I can't help noting that science funding has always been vulnerable, except where profit can be anticipated. Bell Labs was a wonderful offshoot of this creative evolution.

    On the other hand, one could wish that real scientific history and ways of thinking were better taught so it was not so easy for people to be deceived by appearances.

  3. Kind of reminds me of a writing by Alexandre Grothendieck. And the 1000s of pages of his and other mathematicians' writings, "only" to prove Fermat's Last Theorem...

    Here's a suggestion for QOTW:

    "... our drive for knowledge and discovery indulges itself more and more in a logical delirium far removed from life, while life itself is going to Hell in a thousand ways—and is under the threat of final extermination. High time to change our course!" --Alexandre Grothendieck, Bielefeld 1971

    Source incl. image e.g. [1] http://www.maa.org/publications/books/mathematicians-on-creativity p.54 or [2] http://chernikov.wordpress.com/2008/01/29/high-time-to-change-our-course/
    (In case you don't know, Grothendieck is the greatest living mathematician of last century, now hiding from civilization, nobody knows where and why.)

  4. I like "logical delirium". Very nice and I will use it. But the quote is too apocalyptic for my taste. Here it is almost a half century later and we are still just knocking at the gates of hell.


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