Isaac Newton wrote to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in a 1675, saying, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Centuries later, it remains generally understood that innovation builds on past science. So in this era of unprecedented research volume, breakthroughs should be increasingly common, right? Wrong, according to a new study finding that “disruptive” science is on the decline.
This trend downward “represents a substantive shift in science and technology, one that reinforces concerns about slowing innovative activity,” says the analysis, published this month in Nature.
Finding that the decline likely isn’t driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors, the authors attribute this shift “in part to scientists’ and inventors’ reliance on a narrower set of existing knowledge.”
In these research positions, professors agree to ensure all of their writing is distributed via open access — and they release all of their intellectual property in the public domain or under appropriate open-source licences.
But many academics want to see their research fully accessible — free for everyone. My research with colleagues has found the majority of American and Canadian academics want to see universities establish open-source endowed chairs.
How academics use intellectual property
Intellectual property (IP) refers to mind creations like patents and copyrights. Academics use all kind of IP. For example, professors publish their work as articles in peer-reviewed journals, the majority of which are under copyright.
If you have ever tried to read an academic paper, you probably couldn’t. Most academic papers are behind paywalls.
To gain access through the paywalls costs an enormous amount of money for a library (even Harvard’s library balked at having to pay more than US$1 million per year to access articles from a single publisher).
Accessible research in science matters because the more scientists that can read the relevant literature, the more scientists can help push innovations forward and the faster we are able to find solutions.
Many universities brag about the number of patents their professors write. Patents are supposed to encourage innovation because they give the inventor a 20-year monopoly to profit from an invention and this provides a financial incentive.
The basic idea is a professor would patent an invention that could be mass manufactured and then reap licence revenue for 20 years.
This is because most innovation builds on other ideas and there is no “fair use” for patents.
It is illegal to even experiment on a patented idea without a licence. If you need to wait 20 years to build on a good idea, it obviously takes a lot of time to innovate. Historically innovation moved rather slowly, now the rate of innovation is fast. Consider now how ancient a 20-year-old phone would be in your pocket.
Some academics like science and engineering professors do make money on patents for their universities. But the patent revenue they keep tends to be meager, because the costs to get the patent must first be recovered before the inventors get anything.
Open source is a better way
Open source is the answer to speeding up innovation. Open source originally was developed in the software industry as inventors would share the source code of computer programs to innovate faster.
Open source works amazingly well because having a lot of people work on a problem together tends to get a much better solution than a few.
In both these studies, we presented participants with information about open-source endowed professorships to provide context and clarity for the subsequent multiple-choice and open-ended questions.
We looked at professors in every stage of their career (assistant to emeritus), tenured and non-tenured, at all types of universities (colleges to institutions with very high research activity), and in all disciplines including professional programs.
We analyzed results for three core disciplines of engineering/technology, natural sciences and social sciences to assess if there are differences in preferred compensation types among scholars of various disciplines.
The will to share was robust across all variables. Professors as a whole would be willing to make all of their IP freely available in exchange for the open-source endowed chair.
I currently hold the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation, and am one of the first endowed chairs to make an open-source commitment.
It is clear, even from my own work that has been sped along by many others freely contributing to my open-source projects, that science will move faster with open-source methods.
There is a clear willingness of academics to leave behind antiquated IP models for the good of science and society. It is time to provide incentives to accelerate innovation using open science to hasten scientific progress while also making science more just and inclusive.
All research funders — governments, foundations, private companies, donors and universities — should start funding open-source endowed chairs to maximize the impact of their resources.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineer Kristala Prather is relishing the chance to present her work in person at scientific meetings now that the pandemic has eased. But starting this month, she will head to the airport with an added goal in mind: to serve as a “scout” for an unusual new funding program.
Prather’s mission is to spot colleagues with an intriguing research idea so embryonic it has no chance of surviving traditional peer review—and, on her own, decide to provide some funding. “I’m looking forward to giving it a try,” she says. “I’m a people person, and I like learning new things.”
Prather’s new task comes thanks to the Hypothesis Fund, a nonprofit launched today that has an intriguing approach to funding climate change and health studies. Instead of inviting scientists to submit proposals, the fund will find recipients through 17 scouts—scientists, including Prather, chosen for their curiosity, creativity, diversity, and interest in the work of others. Each will get 12 months to award a total of $300,000 to fellow researchers with promising early-stage ideas.
In research and development, new topics are always emerging, maturing, and converging. Some of them quietly fade away, but others become the fundamental driving forces of innovation. Research organizations want to encourage the development of emerging topics, but small groups of scientists can find it risky to spend time on an unproven approach. Even if a new topic turns out to be important, it might be co-opted by larger research groups with more resources, which may discourage some researchers from exploring them further.
However, it is exactly these small groups that are more likely to discover emerging topics, according to researchers from the University of Tsukuba in a study recently published in Scientometrics. The researchers clustered PubMed data and keywords to identify past and current emerging topics in life science and medicine. They then looked at how individual researchers engaged with these topics using author lists of related articles published between 1970 and 2018.
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry recently stated that in order to reach net zero emission goals by 2045, we’ll “need technologies we don’t yet have.” Well, he’s half right. It’s true that battling climate change requires innovative, technologically driven ideas that can be tested, replicated and scaled, at warp speed. But inventing wholly new technology isn’t necessarily the answer, nor is the idea we can deploy today’s technology all the way to 100 percent clean energy.
That’s because the foundations for transformational new technologies already exist in research labs today. However, that technology needs facilities that support rapid testing and scaling. It needs a method that allows research and technology development to coexist without fear of failure; a proven process that can quickly and efficiently bring lab innovations to market.
Fundamental research is where innovation begins. It is the foundation of all scientific progress — the pursuit of original, first-level knowledge that catalyzes advancements in science, technology, medicine, energy, and national security. For decades, federal agencies have led the way in fundamental research, awarding grants to innovative projects at colleges and universities, where much of this research takes place. Through this competitive process, federal dollars have supported — and continue to support — advances across industries, from chemical manufacturing to telecommunications to behavioral sciences and myriad others.
To understand the economic impact of fundamental research investment, FTI Consulting (FTI) analyzed the research expenditures of members of The Science Coalition (TSC), a non-profit, nonpartisan organization of more than 50 of the nation’s leading public and private research institutions between 2015 and 2019. FTI also examined the impact of select “spinoff” companies rooted in the federally funded research conducted at TSC universities. FTI found that as a result of the long-term federal investment in fundamental research, new innovations, businesses, and jobs are created, all of which transform daily life for millions of people in communities across the country.