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How to escape scientific stagnation

A number of billion-dollar experiments suggest a path

IN 2008 BEN JONES of Northwestern University formalised a simple yet powerful observation. The more knowledge humans have, the longer it takes a budding researcher to get to the frontier, and thus to push things forward. In a paper provocatively titled, “The burden of knowledge and the death of the Renaissance man”, Mr Jones argued humanity’s growing knowledge would slow scientific progress and thus economic growth. More recent research has solidified this view. In 2020 economists at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published another provocatively titled paper, “Are ideas getting harder to find?” which concluded that in areas from crop yields to microchip density, new ideas were indeed getting harder to find.

The slowdown has spurred academics and policymakers looking to bolster scientific enterprise. Many are turning to DARPA, a cold war outfit which funds high-risk “moonshot” research, for inspiration. Last year the National Institutes of Health (NIH), America’s largest science funder, launched a new arm with an annual budget of $1bn called ARPA-H. Other countries, including Britain and Germany, have set up their own versions. In July America’s Congress authorised nearly $200bn in new scientific funding over the next decade (although it is yet to stump up the cash), in the process creating a branch of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for applied science and tech. Philanthropists are joining the action, too: their funding of basic research has nearly doubled in the past decade. All these efforts aim to help science get back its risk-loving mojo.

In a working paper published last year, Chiara Franzoni of the POLIMI Graduate School of Management and Paula Stephan of Georgia State University look at a number of measures of…