From quantum leaps to incremental gains: Examining the deceleration of scientific progress

The past two centuries marked an era of transformative changes in human history. It was characterised by extraordinary advancements and innovations that reshaped the world at an astonishing pace. From the widespread adoption of electricity to the rapid evolution of communication technologies, such as the transition from radio to colour television to the internet, society experienced a whirlwind of change. Innovations in transportation, exemplified by the invention of airplanes and bullet trains, revolutionised the way people travel and connect across vast distances. Humanity reached new frontiers with space exploration, culminating in the historic achievement of landing on the moon. However, despite the remarkable progress witnessed in the nineteenth and twentieth century, recent times have seen a noticeable deceleration in the pace of innovation and scientific exemplified by slowing down of Total Factor Productivity, an indicator used to measure technological changes.

In the twentieth century, large research facilities, often owned by major corporations, served as the epicentres of scientific progress and innovation. These facilities, such as Bell Labs, were home to thousands of highly skilled researchers, including a significant number of PhDs, who were responsible for ground-breaking discoveries and inventions. For instance, Bell Labs was renowned for its contributions to technologies like the transistor, photovoltaic cell, and digitally scrambled voice audio. Similarly, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) played a pivotal role in shaping today’s technology landscape by developing revolutionary products such as the graphical user interface, laser printer, Ethernet cable, and user-friendly word processor. Many of these labs were supported by public funding agencies like ARPA (now DARPA), that gave humanity what we know as internet today.

However, after the stagflation crisis of 1970 and Reagan presidency, a shift towards neoliberal economics led to increasing financialisation of the economy and a decline in corporate investment in research and development (R&D). As a result, these labs were defunded and mostly shut downs. Instead of prioritising innovation, companies increasingly focus on maximising profits to shareholders through measures like stock buybacks. This trend is reflected in the dwindling number of patents granted to private companies, from 47% in 1971 to 6% in 2021, and the diminishing presence of scientists within large corporations.

Secondly, neoliberalism obsession with the primacy of market, deregulation and tax cuts means that there are not enough funds left with state to fund R&D project whose advantages are enjoyed by a larger segment of society as in the case of GPS and internet. A recent study revealed that R&D initiatives by the public sector typically focus on fundamental aspects of research, are often more “ahead of time” and pioneering, and have a higher likelihood of producing spill over effects, especially benefiting small companies.

Moreover, the fundamental explanation of decelerating scientific progress is the burden of knowledge. The burden of knowledge, also known as declining marginal returns in economics, is increasingly hindering the pace of scientific advancement. Initially, when the scope of human knowledge was limited, acquiring new knowledge was relatively straightforward. As scientific inquiry progresses and the number of unanswered questions diminishes, the remaining inquiries become inherently more complex and challenging to resolve. This phenomenon creates a bottleneck effect, where the effort and resources required to make breakthroughs increase exponentially. Consequently, the deceleration of scientific progress occurs as researchers encounter greater difficulty in tackling the increasingly intricate question.

There is a global trend towards decelerating scientific progress, Pakistan is on the same path. Gone are the days when Pakistan created Nobel Prize winner like Dr. Abdus Salam or Dr Raziuddin, who to this day are still known globally in the scientific community for their ground breaking work.

This is because Pakistan’s expenditure on research and development (R&D) remains disproportionately low, significantly impacting scientific progress and innovation. According to a UN report, Pakistan ranks 62 out of 69 countries in R&D spending. In addition, the education system in Pakistan prioritises rote learning over fostering innovation and critical thinking skills among students. Moreover, universities tend to produce research outputs that are redundant, with professors often pursuing niche topics to bolster their publication count rather than addressing serious scientific questions.

Several strategies can be pursued to arrest the scientific slump in Pakistan. Firstly, there is a pressing need to increase funding for Research and Development (R&D) activities. Secondly, educations system should be reformed where critical thinking and innovation is encouraged rather than focusing on rote learning that may increase their ability to ascertain good marks in short term, but diminishes their capability to problem solve and undertake scientific endeavour in the long run. Thirdly, Higher Education Commission (HEC) should implement criteria for quality rather than just quantity in the promotional processes of professor that could incentivise meaningful research in universities.

In conclusion, recent decades have seen a notable deceleration in the pace of scientific advancement globally that also mirrored in Pakistan’s struggle to maintain momentum in research and development. Addressing this challenge requires a multi-faceted approach, including increased investment in R&D, fostering collaboration across sectors, and prioritising meaningful research over quantity. By embracing these strategies, Pakistan can reignite its path towards scientific excellence and innovation, ensuring a brighter future for generations to come.

Zaheen Qureshi
Zaheen Qureshi
The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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