The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

America Will Lose Its Scientific Ascendance To China & When Disruptive Science Will Recover

And thinking otherwise is tiresome and delusional. From Nature:

Young Chinese scientists who got their PhDs overseas and returned to China as part of a state-run talent drive published more papers after their return than did their peers who stayed abroad. The productivity bump can be explained by returnees’ access to greater funding and an abundant research workforce, according to the authors of an analysis published in Science1. The findings come as geopolitical competition between the United States and China mounts.

The only things which could derail this are a major war which China loses (though no one’s likely to “win”), or being disproportionately effected by climate change and ecological collapse and unable to handle it.

As regular readers are probably tired of me saying, this happened before with the UK and the US. The research center moves to the manufacturing base.

Meanwhile, a study found that “disruptive science” has declined.

The number of science and technology research papers published has skyrocketed over the past few decades — but the ‘disruptiveness’ of those papers has dropped, according to an analysis of how radically papers depart from the previous literature1.

Data from millions of manuscripts show that, compared with mid-twentieth-century research, that done in the 2000s was much more likely to push science forward incrementally than to veer off in a new direction and render previous work obsolete. Analysis of patents from 1976 to 2010 showed the same trend.

A chart is instructive:


Study authors suggest the following:

The trend might stem in part from changes in the scientific enterprise. For example, there are now many more researchers than in the 1940s, which has created a more competitive environment and raised the stakes to publish research and seek patents. That, in turn, has changed the incentives for how researchers go about their work. Large research teams, for example, have become more common, and Wang and his colleagues have found3 that big teams are more likely to produce incremental than disruptive science.

Finding an explanation for the decline won’t be easy, Walsh says. Although the proportion of disruptive research dropped significantly between 1945 and 2010, the number of highly disruptive studies has remained about the same.

David Graeber had another (partial) explanation:

“There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers”

I’m fairly sure this is a matter of institutionalization and the wrong style of professionalization. Institutions stifle creativity in most cases. Exceptions like Bell Labs are rare; unicorns in modern parlance.

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The old German academic system which took over the world was extremely productive: to become a “doctor” you had to produce new knowledge. It worked fine until the massive expansion of  universities after the war. I’m not an academic insider, but I’m virtually certain that the current system would be unrecognizable to those professors and scientists from the 19th and early 20th centuries: similar to the Roman Empire keeping for the forms of the Republic and pretending the Senate mattered and so on.

The other issue is that “disruptive” isn’t the same as “paradigm changing”, it’s one step down, and I’m guessing that paradigm changing discoveries have genuinely declined. We are mining the same coal seams, and have been for a long time. Quantum mechanics was discovered pre-war, the structure of DNA briefly after the war, Von Neuman and Turing Machines date from the same period. The basis of semiconductors were discovered in 47/48, and so on.

We’re mostly living off the legacy of a past civilization now (because yes, the civilization of the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries are dead). We haven’t made a lot of fundamental discoveries since, or if we have they haven’t been followed up. Even really fantastic stuff like quantum computing is mining that same vein discovered a century ago.

Further, we have refused to really change our physical plant, beyond the widespread telecom/computer revolution. If time-traveled to the present from 1960, once you learned how to use smartphones/computers/payment systems, you’d be fine and fit in. Oh, there are plenty of small changes, I remember the 70s well enough to know that, but the basic structure is the same.

Physical plant changes demand new solutions, but we’re still running on hydrocarbons and even our “alternative energy” is old. Solar panels were invented in 1883. Windmills are ancient and windmills producing electricity are essentially as old as electricity itself. Our advances in batteries are impressive, but they are extensions.

We don’t really want to change anything fundamental. Computers and telecom were adopted wholesale not because they improve productivity (it doesn’t show up in the macro data), but because they allowed people in charge more control. But in the face of known catastrophes we have done essentially nothing.

When we decide to make fundamental changes to our physical plant and to our institutions (including universities) then there will be a massive upsurge in “disruptive science” and there will be new paradigmatic changes and discoveries, assuming we don’t wind up in a Dark Age.

That will happen when civilization collapse makes maintaining the shell of a 70 year old way of life impossible.


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  1. Trinity

    I ran into a former professor of mine at a conference last spring (virtual) and she told me they still miss me. None of their current students want to do anything. For myself, I read old papers which are much, much better than any of the more recent stuff.

    David Graeber nailed it, but I would only add that the universities are clogged with adjuncts living far below the poverty level, and who teach in a way that will ensure they will teach the next semester (don’t upset dear darling or no one will sign up for my spring course and I won’t get paid or be able to eat). Public Universities are also starved of funding unless it’s for a new stadium, or a new head of “whatever serves profit” department, part of the paid-for-results profit center.

    Then with the shift to emphasis on profit everywhere, attention seeking behavior (likes, page views) prevails to attract the attention of the paid-for-results players. Lots of spurious research results are then used for propaganda.

    There’s no future in any of these activities.

    Also read that several colleges and universities are closing down forever, some many hundreds of years old, due to lack of … students.

  2. GrimJim

    Frankly, I don’t see there being that many more paradigm changing discoveries to be made that don’t require a level of energy consumption beyond our abilities.

    Time travel. FTL travel. Dimensional travel.

    Zero-point energy. Anti-gravity. Cloning capable of reproducing neural networks without loss.

    True nanotechnology. Radio-transmittal of energy (without death ray side effects). Quantum manipulation.

    Some of these things can almost be reproduced in labs now, at a ridiculous cost in material and energy.

    That next leap to make them viable outside the lab? That might be the crux of the Fermi Paradox.

    That’s a test I think we’ll fail, because, with human civilizations bent the way they are, scientists aren’t looking in the right places…

  3. bruce wilder

    I only really know my own field of economics, which may be a special and extreme case, due to the political corruption and usefulness in creating a plutocratic mythology for the civic religion, not to mention the supply of “meteorology” and general disinformation.

    1970 marked the great divide. Journal articles before then were often readable; after, boring or impenetrable. Before 1970, every respectable department had at least one Marxist or “Marxicologist” and some other species of dissenters aka people who could and did write in English prose. After 1970, the rising young faculty were people who wished they had mathematical competence and mostly disinterested in the economy. By 1990, various surveys and studies established that graduate students in economics learned some esoteric math and zilch about the economy.

    Economists are unusual in the academy for still being passably well-paid and many business school economics faculties dominate business schools even today, when administrative kudzu overwhelms the liberal arts and professional credentialing faculties. But, no knowledge is produced.

  4. different clue

    @bruce wilder,

    Some few economist with so much tenure that it was judged too difficult to rairoad them out of the department at the time were permitted to develop some actual knowledge or otherwise a better way to look at things anyway. I am thinking of Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly.

    Frederick Soddy had two Nobel Prizes in physical radio-chemistry, which made him near-unpersecutable, so far as I know. So he could not stopped from doing the economic thinking which led to the book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt: The Solution Of The Economic Paradox. Granted, that was approaching a century ago.

    Charles Walters Jr. at Acres USA and the Raw Materials Economists at the National Organization for Raw Materials ( NORM) have developed some useful knowledge.
    Carl Wilken was considered useful enough to where he was invited to address a Joint Session of Congress in the 1930s. But try finding the name “Carl Wilken” on the search engines today. It is not easy. Is it even possible?

    Most of the economists you are speaking of are paid to spread agnatology. They are paid to prevent knowledge under the guise of developing it, and the better they prevent knowledge, the more honor and money they make. Their mission is to spread dumm-gas all over the national brainscape.

  5. VietnamVet

    The 1970s counter revolt that installed money as the only measure of value has ended. Things are falling apart. The halt of air transportation in the USA and Canada because of computer problems Wednesday can’t be a coincidence. Russia changed its General in charge of the Ukraine Campaign, once again. What is staggering is that China has given up on Zero-COVID. “Angry workers clash with police in Chongqing after test-kit maker fires thousands”. Workers are worthless. Neo-liberal greed that has engulfed the world will be swept away by either nuclear, economic or climate change Armageddon(s).

    The only way to right the sinking ship is not unknown. It is the restoration of governments that work for the common good not the corruption that enriches individuals. The last successful invasion was Panama in 1990. NATO and the Soviet Union were both defeated in Afghanistan. The fate of the elite castes that currently dominate the earth’s unchosen is certain. It is a known known.

    From Disney’s “Andor” TV Show finale “Tyranny requires constant effort. It breaks, it leaks. Authority is brittle.” Oppression breeds rebellion.

  6. bruce wilder

    @dc yep.

  7. marku52

    Peer review helps suppress disruptive innovation…..

  8. Tallifer

    I am the first to acknowledge my lack of expertise and in-depth reading on these issues, but I would like to add some counterpoints. 1) Americans developed the most effective vaccine against the coronavirus in record time; 2) I have read (need to take some time to recall where, perhaps the Economist) that there is even more fakery in Chinese research and credentials than in the West (political and doctrinal concerns trumping fact and method in a Communist dictatorship; at least our admittedly corrupt system occasionally recognizes what works and financially punishes what does not). Your essay motivates me to do more reading and investigation.

  9. different clue


    ” They also rebel who passively obstruct.”

    Slow down.
    Tune out.
    Slack off.

  10. Willy

    I know a few PhD’s. Only a handful are into the business of inventing or testing out radical new toys. Most work in other fields and treat their PhD like some Boy Scout Eagle badge. “Look, I’ve got this and so I’m better than you.”

    I worked for one who was the very definition of Dunning Kruger. I had to devise various psychological tricks, like getting him to believe that his failed idea was mine, or my good idea was his, just to get along with him and keep the project moving. He would’ve made a good character in a TV sitcom.

    In high school a spoiled rich kid chose a seat right next to mine and became my “new best friend”. Turned out he was more into playing his guitar than learning how to read, and so had to cheat off my stuff just to pass the class. A year later I saw him at the local university carrying a backpack. I said: “What are you doing here?” He replied: “Going to school.” I told another U classmate who’d also known him at our high school and he said: “Welcome to the system.” The latter guy was a die-hard nightly partier who routinely fell asleep in class. I never got where he could ever find the time to study. He invited me to lunch once and we went to the professor’s lunch building. He had the entry code memorized. Inside, we went up to a couple distinguished looking profs and he said: “Mom, Dad, this is Willy.” Today that guy teaches at a Florida university.

    So, yeah. If the Chinese are further ahead in the field of integrity, I’m sure their disruptively ascendant science will be better than that of the US. A lot better based on what I’ve seen.

  11. Joan

    If universities were free or close to it I’d basically study my whole life and work on the side to keep it going. What I’ve had to do instead (being from the US) is become an autodidact and read one hundred or so books per year, which isn’t much compared to someone like Ian but it’s a good clip for me.

    I remember every semester I felt like there were so many classes I wanted to take and I wouldn’t get to take them all. Now as an adult I have to do dumb monkey-see-monkey-do tasks for 40-60 hours per week just to pay my bills. What a waste of time!

    I will forever be grateful for the academic scholarship that allowed me to escape with a BA and no debt.

  12. Jorge

    My dad was a Chem Eng at UC Berkeley, class of 40/41 (don’t actually know). One graduation requirement was that he had to translate and summarize a technical paper written in German, French, or Russian (his choice). At that time those societies were the leaders in the industry.

    A former coworker sent her kids to a Chinese language charter school in Berkeley. She sent them there because being able to engage with Chinese society gives them a better future, even if they choose to live in the US.

    She and the kids are white. She said it was fun seeing two little ghosts running around in a sea of Chinese kids.

  13. Ché Pasa

    “Disruptive science”. Well… To the extent I have any experience in the field (limited contact among planetary scientists c. 1976-2000) during a time when huge discoveries were being made or should have been, the field actually worked to suppress disruption in every possible way. All “knowledge” was being filtered through a sieve of prior belief, Big Man conclusions, and published expectations. Speculation and alternative explanations for phenomena and observations were rigorously suppressed.

    This was a running joke. Progress in knowledge and understanding was nigh impossible. Still is in many ways. Even though individual planetary scientists and a whole raft of lay observers and students have made astonishing but slow progress by using widely available materials, data, and documentation to come up with what amount to private conclusions that I suppose would be very disruptive if they were widely disseminated..

    What’s Out There is not what the field has been saying by consensus for many long years.

    Oh, decades from now the field may well adopt some of the more radical alternatives (as they’re seen now) and claim to have always known or been convinced of the Truth of them, but the field will also resist many other conclusions simply because it’s what it does. It’s a split personality if you will, that is suffused in some ways with paranoia. Someone might find out something that they’re not supposed to know. You know?

    As for PhDs, please. In what way is a PhD supposed to lead to “disruption?” Or innovation? Ha.

  14. Carborundum

    The largely unmentioned but critical factor here is the shift in academic publication norms. The volume of publication required to be viable for a tenure track position and further advancement is quite simply insane. Yes, disruptive research is still being done – but except for that comparative handful of articles that everyone cites in given sub-fields, it’s harder to see it against the explosion in publication.

    The changes in the academic publication are dramatic enough that I’m quite unconvinced that citation patterns are a great (or at least consistent) instrument over the time span. I get weekly notifications of my citations – one of the things that I have noticed is that my old stuff gets cited more regularly than the new stuff. The new stuff is actually the more “disruptive” stuff, but the old stuff is familiar to the folks citing it and easy for them to drop into their papers to make their point for the 20th time in an article only narrowly differentiated from the other 19 as they pursue advancement. Relatedly, I’d also bet that a bunch of the dynamics on the posted graph are due to what materials were available online vs. only on paper in the stacks when articles were written.

    That pattern of looking back and seeing major disruptive changes in fields seeming to stop a couple of decades before the observer sees them is pretty natural. It takes time for the really fundamental shifts to become visible. Much of the theoretical basis for what we’re currently seeing operationalized in machine learning and AI is something like three decades old…

  15. bruce wilder

    Chinese economists are generally ahead of American, if only because of having had practical tasks handed to them. Still, there is the small matter of that property bubble and a number of other deficiencies. Economics is hard because hard politics makes it so. Politics may demand obdurate stupidity and ignorance or practical skill and insight in managing institutions — the academy will supply what is demanded.

    On a side note, NC linked to news of the passing of Barkley Rosser, who often managed to make academic economics look like a serious intellectual enterprise. When I disagreed with him, I often found out how wrong I would turn out to be. He knew a lot.

  16. bruce wilder

    The replication crisis suggests that the most disruptive thing academics could do would be pure follow-the-tail-lights of trying to do exactly what some tenured guy did twenty years ago and see if the result is at all similar.

    Of course, that’s not “original” and is probably mostly unpublishable for that supposed reason.

  17. c_heale

    When you are frightened of losing your job, you aren’t going to do anything disruptive. Lack of tenure is another factor.

  18. Willy

    I don’t understand why people aren’t getting this. It’s not the finer details within the system, but the rot of the system.

    The guy I described got his MA at Yale, JD at Columbia. I knew diligently studious geeks and he was never one of them. Not even close. Two top diligently studious geeks I knew were high honors students who’d hoped to get into an ivy league school, were refused and had to settle for state university. I sat between them in a formal logic class and they got the top grades. Today they freelance as a graphics designer and sports bio author. Compare with that other guy, a hard partying student who shoplifted for kicks, who’s today a tenured university professor.

    I’d prefer to quote credible statistics from some credible institution instead of typing out boring old anecdotes, but I cant find any at the moment. Why is it not obvious that in America, one honorarium from daddy is worth more to the system than two diligently studious geeks?

  19. StewartM

    As someone who works in the sciences, I have quite a lot to say about this. I think you’re essentially correct, scientific progress has slowed, and here are my reasons.

    1) “There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers” — this is correct, but it’s correct due to the pressures of capitalism. As I wrote earlier, when I hired in the Meyers-Briggs profile of a typical research scientist was an INTP–someone loathe to jump to judgements, always wanting to do more work, always looking under every stone to see if there was a failing in his/her work.

    But such a researcher to the capitalist/managerial non-technical class seems wishy-washy–they are Meyers-Briggs “Js” who want conclusions NOW they can take to the bank. Ergo, the profile of the typical researcher in my career has changed to an INTJ, who also jumps to conclusions based on even the most preliminary of data. That’s because they are the ones who get the promotions and the funding. As I said, this can explain why the CDC and others issued proclamations at the beginning of Covid that turned out not to be true.

    But this also has repercussions on the scope of science. Thomas Edison, the father of the corporate research lab, had 10,000 failures before he hit success. With the “rush to judgment” of capitalist-friendly science, are such projects possible today? I’ve witnessed during my career several interesting and possibly fruitful projects bite the dust because management decided to that the reward wasn’t near enough to justify sinking any more resources into it. Capitalism has created a corporate science where you don’t pursue the hard things, but go for the easy things.

    2) Along with this, the internal funding for corporate science has changed. Many corporations have done away or reshuffled their corporate R&D divisions. Instead of having a centralized R&D structure with independent funding, they have given funding and direction over to the existing product divisions. And what do the existing product divisions want? Totally new products and breakthrough inventions? No, they have R&D pursue tweaks and incremental improvements in existing product lines. I believe this was one of Jack Belch Welch’s “contributions” to corporate culture.

    3) Downsizings. Becoming truly an expert in science is not something one before graduation. No, true expertise takes many years; usually decades. US science has been hurt by downsizings, which usually ends up replacing experts with decades of knowledge and experience with kids who may be smart, but lack the same level of expertise. This is especially true of corporations where the corporate leadership no longer have any technical background but now are all MBAs. To them a scientist or engineer is just a cog in the corporate machine, and yeah, if they lay one off with 20 or 30 or more years experience they admit there’ll be some hit, “but in a few years” the kids will be up to speed. But they are deluding themselves; institutional knowledge that took decades to built will take decades to reclaim.

    Of course, in addition to this, downsizings result in a dispersal of effort and a loss of focus on projects, as everyone is trying to juggle several at the same time.

    4) “The old German academic system which took over the world was extremely productive: to become a “doctor” you had to produce new knowledge.”

    I think science education and the ‘German academic system’ you describe has failed us. One, as you allude, university science professors have largely stopped being teachers and have become “marketeers” for funding.

    But along with this, there are other problems. As corporate America gutted its own R&D labs, it reached out to universities and (free) grad student labor to take up the slack. Instead of paid researchers with decades of experience doing the work, R&D gets done by free labor of grad students who have just a fraction of the knowledge. I have read many academic papers during my career which involve my areas of expertise, and while some are impressive, many more make me grimace and think “I wouldn’t have published this”.

    Moreover, this “becoming a doctor” results in a poorer education. Usually the “new knowledge” obtained is of poor quality, or of little use. Instead of grad students working on more fruitful areas of research, they are told to prioritize “the new” over “the useful”.* Even in the best cases, they end up digging a very deep, very narrow hole. And when these PhDs who dug those very narrow, very deep knowledge holes find a job, they know little more than a BS student on anything outside their “hole”. It’s a running joke in my company how new PhD employees often have to be “trained ” in their jobs by BS workers or even those with 2-year associate degrees.

    In my opinion, a better educational model than the German would be for our PhD students to become master theoreticians (which they don’t become digging that narrow, deep, hole). I’d want them to learn and know theory backwards, forwards, and sideways. I’d extend the BS degree from a 4 to a 6-year program, with the last two years being akin to current PhD work, done under the mentorship of both PhD candidate student and a professor. That way, the BS candidates would come better prepared for their fields, while the PhDs would be more versatile (as theoretical knowledge is always very useful).

    *This also applies in the humanities as well. Looking over a list of published dissertations in history, I recall seeing one on the impact of Czarist Russia’s foreign policy on the newly independent republics of South America in the early 19th century. I thought “that’s almost nil” but I’m sure that as no one had written a paper on this topic, and that’s why it was written. It was “new research”.

  20. StewartM

    Bruce Wilder

    By 1990, various surveys and studies established that graduate students in economics learned some esoteric math and zilch about the economy.

    “Esoteric math”? I take it you meant factor analysis?

    I don’t know what you meant by saying “zilch about the economy” as some of the most strident economists are of the Austrian camp, who disdain the whole idea of having to test their ideas against actual data, let alone build mathematical models to predict data.

  21. Willy

    1) Interesting. I was never impressed with the INTPs I knew in the design engineering world. They performed a bit like the eccentric, brilliant, impractical but very bored classmate who didn’t care to just complete the exercises which everybody else was doing already. But they were pretty good at keeping their jobs though. Is this where all the once-scientific INTPs are going? As for INTJs, has it become as profitable for INTJs to join academia as it once was business or engineering? I wonder if our Chicago School dominated MBA culture has inadvertently caused a flip in INTP and INTJ career choices, with unforeseen disastrous results.

    2) Those polls asking corporate executives what they were going to be doing with their corporate tax cuts… It sure as hell wasn’t to focus on R&D.

    3) Didn’t Boeing’s CEO recently say something about slowing down all new aircraft design? And so soon after composite structures became a thing. What a mess.

    4) Assuming the system rewards integrity of course.

  22. StewartM


    Is this where all the once-scientific INTPs are going?

    I’m an INTP (well, sometimes I take the test and come out an INFP). I think we’re still in the same fields, we’re just not promoted. Most of us would disdain a management job anyways. But we’re the ones who actually create knowledge that is backed with a high degree of confidence, as we test it thoroughly. INTJs are necessary in science and engineering too (it’s sometimes necessary to kill what seems to be a dead-end project) but their influence is overhyped by capitalism.

    But remember, when I hired in, we still had scientists working where I worked who had worked on the Manhattan Project. Obviously, the attention to proving all the details was necessary with that, and was the epitome of “big science”.

  23. Willy

    I communicate with a retired INTP PhD who spends all their spare time reading religious philosophy, for relaxation and fun. Been doing it for years with no real goal in mind. I’m more J (low J) and sarcastically needle the guy to come up with a grand unified theory already and move on to something more practical, for my own relaxation and fun. But he never ever changes.

    At least he’s not an ENTJ, who can be double the ger-er-done-now! Maybe good for cutting gordian knots and all, but also at scapegoating somebody if their idea blows up. I’d think their infiltration into fields once managed by far more cautious thinkers has had a negative effect. But I don’t have any stats for that.

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