Anthony Hennen of the Martin Center urges a reorientation in scientific research.

In scientific research, new ideas have become harder to find. Innovation has fallen compared to 50 years ago. Rather than a fear of “too much change,” many researchers worry about stagnation.

One argument suggests that the low-hanging fruit of scientific research has already been picked. Older scientists made the major breakthroughs, and younger scientists now focus on the minor work that comes from major revelations.

Another argument, however, suggests that the problem isn’t a lack of fruit. Instead, scientific research that focuses on old ideas is rewarded, not research on new ones. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University and Mikko Packalen of the University of Waterloo in Canada make that argument in a recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Over the last five decades, citations have become the dominant way to evaluate scientific contributions and scientists,” Bhattacharya and Packalen wrote. “This emphasis on citations in the measurement of scientific productivity shifted scientist rewards and behavior on the margin toward incremental science and away from exploratory projects that are more likely to fail, but which are the fuel for future breakthroughs…As attention given to new ideas decreased, science stagnated.”

“Even baseball players are evaluated on many more dimensions than scientists,” they wrote. To re-align incentives and encourage scientific breakthroughs, Bhattacharya and Packalen suggest creating a model that rewards scientists based on multiple dimensions, such as measuring novelty and work based on new ideas.

The Martin Center spoke with Mikko Packalen via email to discuss scientific incentives and how to reverse stagnation. …

… “[I]n the scientific community I worry about the incentives created by new communication tools such as Twitter.

On social media, your value is mainly measured by your follower count. Academics thus today have an increased incentive to say popular things and enter areas of investigation where there are already many others. These platforms also increase the incentive to pursue research topics that are currently the most newsworthy, as news coverage exposes you to more potential followers.”