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“Short-Termism” in Laboratory Research: Are Good Ideas Getting Harder to Find?

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Roughly two years ago, economist Nicholas Bloom co-authored a paper that set off laboratory research alarm bells around the world, asking “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?” They estimated that laboratory research productivity was dropping by around 4% each year (thus halving every 13 years).

Bloom and his colleagues presented evidence “showing that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply. A good example is Moore’s Law. The number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling of computer chip density is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s. More generally, everywhere we look we find that ideas, and the exponential growth they imply, are getting harder to find.”

A Growing Challenge to Productive Research

This is obviously worrisome, according to Laura Matz, Chief Science and Technology Officer at Merck. “Scientific research is an essential driver of economic growth and human progress. … indications from a number of well-respected economists that research productivity has declined across a range of countries concerned us. We decided to investigate whether this is true, and if so, why.”

Merck worked with Oxford Economics, a firm specializing in forecasting and quantitative analysis. Their goal was to determine

  1. whether research was indeed growing less efficient and
  2. to identify primary drivers of that drag on progress

They released their findings last November. Merck and Oxford Economics did indeed broadly confirm the trend highlighted by Bloom (et al.). But they also identified some bright spots, specifically in basic laboratory research. This is “the fundamental scientific work carried out to further human knowledge with no specific application in mind.”

The authors note, for example, that the rapid development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines was only possible because researchers had a solid foundation of basic research to build upon. This was research that, when it began in the late 1980s, had no clear immediate application or potential for a good “return on investment.”  

Merck’s and Oxford Economics’ most conservative estimate is that the productivity of academics performing basic research has at least remained steady for the last century. Adjusting for inflation and quality of work, the productivity of basic researchers in most nations appears to have climbed over the last 20 years, by as much as 3% to 6%, rather than dropping 4% or more annually.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that by some measures productivity in both applied research and experimental development is indeed declining. This is especially the case in some very important sectors, like pharmaceuticals and semiconductors.

What Factors Are Dragging Laboratory Research Down?

Merck and Oxford Economics identified several key factors leading to a general decline in research productivity. We were most struck by a phenomenon they called short-termism. As the study authors explained:

“[R]esearchers are increasingly facing pressure to publish results in shorter time frames. Associated with this is a rise in negative impacts on quality such as error, fraud and non-reproducibility. A focus on short term results, as well as short funding cycles, may also be reducing the ability of researchers to focus on new areas of research, without which only incremental innovations can be made.”

According to Barbra Wells, CEO of Priorclave North America:

“These are extremely timely findings that we should all take to heart. The past several years have made it abundantly clear that global short-term thinking—in our research, our business practices, how we run our labs and organize our lives—has driven us to a crisis point. Ironically, it seems almost certain that the best way to stave off near-term catastrophe is to more fully focus on long-term impacts and results.”