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Is the Rate of Scientific Progress Slowing Down?

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Cowen, Tyler, and Ben Southwood. 2019. “Is the Rate of Scientific Progress Slowing Down?” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network (SRRN).

Some of the biggest debates over the last decade have focused on the rate of progress, both economic and scientific. As is common in times of economic crisis or slowdown, commentators have focused on what might have gone wrong. In this paper, we consider whether the rate of scientific progress has slowed down, and more generally what we know about the rate of scientific progress, based on these literatures and other metrics we have been investigating. This investigation takes the form of a conceptual survey of the available data. We consider which measures are out there, what they show, and how we should best interpret them, to attempt to create the most comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of metrics for the progress of science. In particular, we integrate a number of strands in the productivity growth literature, the “science of science” literature, and various historical literatures on the nature of human progress. If progress in science is slowing down, as indeed we have some reason to believe, these data may help us figure out where the problem has come from. We then could act to speed it up, or at least try to figure out how to do so.

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