Has Research Lost its Innovative Drive? Not so Fast…

A 2023 Nature study stated that science and innovation have slowed down, producing less new knowledge. Researchers at the University of Basel say the claim was made based on a measurement error—and they are refuting the study, at least for patents.

The discovery of mRNA in the 1960s resulted in entirely new findings that ushered in new “disruptive” developments (a disruptive finding upends traditional thought and industry). Comparatively, research findings are “consolidating” when they build upon existing knowledge, such as mRNA vaccines that helped overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disruptive and consolidating discoveries are both critical. The study published in Nature in 2023 claimed that this relationship needed to be balanced, meaning that the scientific innovation system produces fewer groundbreaking discoveries.

For the Nature study, US researchers analyzed millions of scientific publications from 1945 to 2010 and patents from 1976 to 2010 using the CD index, which assigns values between 1 (totally disruptive) and -1 (totally consolidating). 

For a patent, this means that if subsequent patents only cite it (for example, patent C) but not the patents before it, patent C is classified as disruptive and represents the start of a stream of citations. Patent C is “consolidating” if subsequent patents (D, E, F) also cite prior patents (A, B). Concluding that disruptive research has sharply declined, the Nature study called the innovative capacity of the entire scientific system into question. 

Researchers from the University of Basel were skeptical. When they checked the study’s calculations, they discovered serious measurement errors.

Their results were recently published in the journal Research Policy. They state that the measurement error in the Nature study stems from its exclusion of citations to patents published before 1976. Said Dr. Rutzer. “Most patents from the early 1980s cite patents published before 1976. If you cut out these citations, many of these patents become disruptive – not because they are, but because many citations to prior patents are not considered.”

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