The decline of ‘disruptive’ science

Read the full story at Inside Higher Ed.

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.”

‘Disruptive’ science has declined — and no one knows why

Read the full story in Nature.

The proportion of publications that send a field in a new direction has plummeted over the past half-century.

Why we need open-source science innovation — not patents and paywalls

A virology lab researcher works to develop a test that will detect the P.1 variant of the coronavirus, in São Paulo, Brazil, in March 2021. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

by Joshua M. Pearce, Western University

As we prepare to invest money to prevent the next global pandemic and find solutions to many other problems, science funders have a large opportunity to move towards open science and more research collaboration by offering open-source endowed chairs.

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.

The global scholarly publishing market has grown steadily and is now worth over US$28 billion. Researchers estimate universities are also able to capture billions through patent licensing, although most technology transfer offices at universities actually lose money.

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.

A red journal seen tipping off a shelf.
Most academic papers are behind paywalls. (Shutterstock)

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).

At the beginning of the pandemic, when fast innovation was needed, most major publishers made their COVID-19 collections “open access,” which means everyone could read them for free. They did this to speed up innovation because it is obvious that paywalls slow science.

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.

The open access movement is growing quickly. Authors must pay to make their work available in some open-access journals. Now, however, there are many respected peer-reviewed open-access journals that are free to publish in and free to read.

Patents hamper innovation

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 does happen. However, a tidal wave of academic study after study, have shown that patents actively hamper innovation.

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.

People stand next to fake coffins with signs that say 'drop the patents.'
Advocacy to drop patents grew in the pandemic, seen in the work of global justice campaigners standing by fake coffins to highlight COVID-19 deaths globally, in October 2021, in London. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

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.

Today open source is dominant in all supercomputers, 90 per cent of cloud servers, 82 per cent of smartphones and most artificial intelligence. Ninety per cent of the Fortune Global 500 use open-source software.

Study on university professors

The results of a survey study of university professors in Canada found 81.1 per cent of Canadian faculty would trade all IP for an open-source endowed chair and 34.4 per cent of these faculty would require no additional compensation. Surprisingly, even more American faculty (86.7 per cent) are willing to accept an open-source endowed professorship.

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.

Accelerating innovation

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.

Joshua M. Pearce, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From the lab to the battery start-up

Read the full story in Chemical & Engineering News.

Entrepreneurial researchers tell their stories about how they developed a lab discovery and turned it into a commercial battery.

New funding effort will deploy a corps of scientist ‘scouts’ to spot innovative ideas

Read the full story in Science.

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.

We commercialized a methane capture technology in ten years — here’s how

Read the full story in Nature.

Lessons from launching a spin-off company: invest in collaborations and engineering, and protect intellectual property to speed up tech development.

In science, small groups create big ideas

Read the full story from the University of Tsukuba.

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.

Webinar: How Black inventors are paving the way in modern science for a sustainable future

February 9, 2022 6-7 pm CST
Register here.

Moderator: Joyce Ward, USPTO

Panelists: Rene Dennison, Maricopa Institute of Technology/ Tanaga Boozer, USDA/ Dr. T. Greg Tucker, Science, Technology & Intellectual Property, LLC

Through support from the Lemelson Foundation, Beyond Benign has teamed up with the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) and Society for Science for Pathways to Sustainable Invention Speaker Series to elevate the stories of inventors (including student inventors) from diverse backgrounds, so all youth can be inspired and engaged to invent for a sustainable future.

Access the recording of pasts webinars on the Pathways to Sustainable Invention YouTube channel

The technology to reach net zero carbon emissions isn’t ready for prime time, but …

Read the full story in Scientific American.

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.

Sparking Economic Growth: How Fundamental Research Drives Economic Growth and Innovation

Download the document.

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.