I) An article recently published in Nature concludes that the percentage of disruptive scientific findings and patents is much lower than it was a few decades ago. The term “disruptive” designates something groundbreaking that abruptly changes a trend; the opposite of “disruptive” is “continuist,” which means to maintain the concepts without changing anything essential in our understanding of things. Is anyone surprised by this?
In the article referred to, a paper is considered “disruptive” when it changes the citation dynamics and is more frequently cited within a certain time interval after its publication (here, the interval of five years is used) than the references cited in the article. The study analyzes the citations of 45 million articles and 3.9 million patents. The result shows that, on average, the index measuring the degree of disruptiveness (which has a value between -1.00 and +1.00) decreased from 1945 to 2010 for physical sciences (from 0.36 to 0.00), life sciences and medicine (from 0.21 to 0.00), technology (from 0.44 to 0.02), and social sciences (from 0.52 to 0.04). Patents from 1980 to 2010 show a similar trend.
Is this drop too much? It seems so, according to the experts in the analysis, who speak of an abysmal drop in the relative number of pioneering articles, those that are the origin of new lines of research and in which there is nothing published before them on the subject that deserves to be cited (thus achieving an index of +1). It may or may not be surprising that the analysis of 635 papers belonging to Nobel laureates in chemistry, medicine, and physics shows that, on average, the index went from around 0.8 in 1910 to around 0 a century later. It seems that today’s Nobel laureates are not as groundbreaking as those of the past.
One can perhaps be somewhat skeptical about the use of bibliometrics to study the importance of scientific discovery. Surely, there have been important papers with few citations compared to others in the field and vice versa, as well as important papers that are not immediately recognized, while others have been frequently cited before their importance evaporates. However, leaving aside individual cases and considering the statistical average, it is clear that these results tell us something. In fact, they only confirm what can already be sensed by looking at the evolution of science in the last century: it is clear that science is becoming increasingly expensive and produces results of less “relative” importance and that the number of scientific revolutions is continuously decreasing.
Much has been published, but most papers do not add anything relevant or anything that sets a new trend. The percentage of papers that could be thrown away with little impact on our knowledge has skyrocketed. Moreover, the number of first-rank science articles that mark an important milestone is increasingly scarce. Some individual articles from the 1920s in physics contribute more to our knowledge than tens of thousands of the best articles in physics today because, no matter how much noise they make and regardless of the number of congresses and press releases, they provide only minor results. The golden age of the fundamental sciences (and of almost all cultural areas, in fact) has passed, and what remains now are hordes of university students pursuing careers, inflating their CVs, working to live a bourgeois life, and competing to share part of the generous budget that the States give to R+D+i. The science of adventurous, restless minds searching for truth and new ideas is a thing of the past.
Today, with a few exceptions, the businessman who lives by selling smoke dominates. This is not only because good ideas are finite—with the best ones already having been developed—but also because of the disastrous environment of management of scientific centers, politicization, and the conversion of the profession into a business. It is a business in which the work of the manager who seeks great consensus of scientific flocks is rewarded, and those who work alone to pursue groundbreaking findings are ignored. Such individuals are often treated as pretentious and narcissistic for not joining their mediocre colleagues who only seek to suck up to the State. As I have already pointed out, there are reasons for the twilight of the scientific age in our time.
In my career as an astrophysics researcher, I have seen brilliant researchers who can think of very complex problems in physics or mathematics or astronomy, but these are rarely considered. Those who stand out, those who make a media impact, and those who get professorships and an entourage of workers under them are mostly what I call “astropoliticians.” They have neither the time, the will, nor the intelligence to face complicated scientific problems, but they do have skills as administrative managers.
Research centers and universities are full of full professors who have not written an article as the first author for a long time, and few have written as much in their lifetimes as more prolific authors. However, they have supervised the work of others and have participated in review committees or in large collaborations with dozens or hundreds of co-authors of works in which two or three people do the work while the others watch or give the go-ahead. These articles with a plethora of co-authors rarely produce brilliant ideas. However, they are the result of large economic investments in new data sources that other researchers then use and cite. The citations subsequently multiply as the co-authors themselves, their subjects, and their direct collaborators also cite the work. Thus, such articles obtain more citations than articles of pure science and pure thought written by one or a few co-authors with little time for a social life.
There is an entire mafia-like network in evaluation committees that value a researcher more for their management tasks and participation in large collaborations than for any honest and productive work he or she might have conducted that required thought and was produced and published based on his or her ideas. For example, normalized citations (I.e., the number of citations divided by the number of co-authors), which would be more reflective of productive capacity, are not usually used, and being the first author is valued little more than being the 27th author of a paper. Management carries more weight than scientific work, and when evaluating scientific work, parameters that favor the astropolitician over the scientific thinker are used.
I met a young researcher, about 35 years old, with several publications typical of his age, who was clear that he would not be professionally compensated to continue doing science and publishing articles because he already had enough papers published. He claimed that, after a certain number, it is not worth publishing more and developing the lines of research one has initiated. He considered that he should devote himself to management and other activities to achieve his goal of being a full professor. When evaluators are asked about this way of assessing a curriculum vitae, they shrink back and claim, “It is written in the rules of evaluation.” Those who have dedicated their careers to the system with little or no dedication to the work of a scientist and have devoted themselves to management and politics have designed an evaluation system to suit their needs.
It is not that researchers are useless and lacking in talent for big science (we are, myself included). Rather, what pervades the atmosphere is weariness, the feeling that everything is already hackneyed in fundamental science research (in applied sciences, it is different in some aspects). It also seems that the only way to progress professionally is to become an expert economic manager who can get a good slice of the States’ budget for projects with increasing costs and diminishing returns. Thus, the lack of scientific quality has been replaced with pompous press releases and publicity exaggerating the relevance of each small finding.
Furthermore, with all the money obtained, departments are filled with hordes of Ph.D. students and young postdoctoral researchers who dedicate themselves to quickly producing massive amounts of routine articles to compete for a job. Since the United States and its neoliberal model dominate how science is done and impose its ways on the rest of the planet, everything is “business as usual.” The history of the West has changed since the Normandy landings, and the chicken has come home to roost, so no one should be surprised that science today is not like it was in 1945 or earlier. The neoliberal economic model is not going to make science great again.
Is it surprising, then, that scientific articles are becoming continually less disruptive on average? The statistics published by Nature merely reflect an obvious fact: that there is much ado about almost nothing. And this statistic only goes back to 2010. The last 13 years have witnessed greater dullness and, therefore, greater continuity and less disruption, and what lies ahead in the future does not look much better.
II) The expression “science and its demons” has been used on several occasions as a vindication of scientific popularization to fight against the obscurantism of pseudosciences and superstitions, paraphrasing the famous science communicator Carl Sagan, or to refer, for example, to the historical struggle between rationalism and romanticism in the philosophy of Nature. I wanted the title of the present article to refer to the inner demons of science: the scientists themselves, who are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by overexploiting it.
The enemies of science are not outside the guild but inside. The added problems of the current social structure of science are manifold. I have pointed out the absence of innovation or disruptiveness as one such problem. Another notable problem is the restriction of the freedoms that researchers once enjoyed and the pressure to dogmatize within certain ideologies that are sometimes not scientific but purely political.
See, for example, the article ”La ciencia necesita una pizca de libertad, o más” (Science needs a pinch of freedom, or more). As noted, “for the sociologist of science Richard Merton, science is ‘organized skepticism’. One is scientific precisely to the extent that one questions the dominant opinion and looks for errors, ambiguities and counterexamples (...) An uncritical science is simply not a science, it is pseudoscience” (translated from the original in Spanish). It is added elsewhere in the article that “Those who want to subordinate science to morality subordinate it de facto to the State or some other social force. The culture of cancellation is nothing other than this: the subordination of culture through violence. The basis of the Culture of Cancellation is primitive moralism, which says: the boundaries between good and evil are simple: good is what we consider good, and everything else is evil. Whoever doubts this is the enemy. And precisely to avoid falling into this error, science needs a pinch of freedom. Or more.” (translated from the original in Spanish)
Another article, ”Científicos contra la ciencia” (Scientists against science), indicates that science, its journals, and its committees sell out to opportunistic political causes, leaving aside the sacred principles of ideological neutrality in science. The author concludes “That the fear of freedom of research, of approaching a knowledge close to reality, comes from a scientific body gives an idea of the extent to which scientists have been corrupted” (translated from the original in Spanish).
However, not all these vices of present-day science weigh it down. Rather, the opposite is true: the decadent spirit gives rise to them. The scientist of the past was often a scholar, an intellectual, and a thinker, usually with extensive knowledge of history, philosophy, and languages. Today’s scientist is a specialized technician like an engineer or an industrial worker. The science of the past was beautiful, exciting, and a delight for intelligent, mature minds who enjoyed intellectual challenges. Today’s science is bureaucratic, monotonous, full of boring tasks for pencil pushers, demotivating, and childish. All this anodyne burden is borne by the man of science with the prospect of new trips to congresses, honorary medals in recognition of great nothingness, or economic prizes. Money and career advancement are the only consolations for those who do not expect to do anything valuable in science. The problems of science and culture are industrialization and professionalization. Everything that becomes an assembly line lacks the spontaneity characteristic of truly creative processes.
Recently, there has been a shameless flirtation of scientific managers with opportunistic political ideologies within what is known as “diversity, inclusion, equity.” As often happens in most Western countries, there is a tendency to imitate and be second in everything, and if another country starts a new trend, we must follow it. It is the best way to be integrated into the international community and for community funds for science to flow, especially if we suck up to politicians by helping them spread their propaganda. However, it is not the best way to innovate ideas, which is supposed to be the mission of science and academia in general.
All public research organizations are obliged to remain neutral in ideological, political, religious, and philosophical debates, as well as any other kind of debate. However, I have observed in the center where I work [Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC, Tenerife, Spain)], as in many others, that, hidden behind the excuse of promoting equity policies, a propaganda machine of feminist ideologies has been created. This propaganda machine acts as a loudspeaker for slogans of certain political parties that proclaim messages about historical and present victimhood of women in science while promoting feminist ideas for social change. A continuous bombardment of ideological publicity has been accompanied by the blocking or censorship of the expression of critical ideas contrary to the established dominant ideology.
This has led, among many other nonsensical actions, to the occurrence at the seminar at the IAC by Professor of Philosophy at Lund University (Sweden) Erik J. Olsson on November 18, 2021, on freedom of expression in the academic world. The lecture reviewed the most important academic norms on freedom of expression based on the 1997 UNESCO recommendations on the status of higher education teaching staff. Moreover, the major threats to academic freedom in today’s Western world, including the transition from traditional academic values to an excessive focus on human relations and soft values, indicate how radical gender policies in the name of gender mainstreaming have restricted freedom of expression in Swedish universities. The recorded video of the lecture was on YouTube for only about two hours before it was taken down. No legal reason was given for this censorship; rather, an appeal to incompatibility with the institute’s equity policies was responsible. For more, see the account of the author of the seminar in Chapter 26 of this book.
The issue of the censorship of Olsson’s talk has tail. Sources of documentation proving the facts of the matter have revealed that the “Women and Astronomy” committee of the Spanish Society of Astronomy Sociedad Española de Astronomía; SEA) is another branch of gender ideology within astronomy research in Spain. This committee pressured the director of the IAC to censor Olsson’s talk. One of the committee members expressed that the underlying objective was to make the IAC director feel “as uncomfortable as possible about all this.” Amid coercion and false accusations and disqualifications of the speaker and the person who invited him to give the talk [myself], one of the members of the “Women and Astronomy” committee, a professor of astrophysics, expressed her disagreement with the leftist-sectarian biased decisions that were made. The remaining members expelled her from the committee for refusing to accept the conclusions of her colleagues—that’s how a consensus is reached today.
There were reactions from various colleagues at the IAC to the blatant and unconstitutional censorship undertaken by the IAC board, but cowardice prevailed in the end, and let the powerful impose their will. One researcher initially stood up and bravely proclaimed in an internal e-mail exchange (translated from the original in Spanish), “Where has Voltaire’s wisdom disappeared ‘I disagree with you [in what you say,] but I will defend to the death your right to say it’?” (Actually, the quote is not from Voltaire but from an author who wrote a biography about Voltaire and used this phrase to illustrate his thinking).
He saw that he did not convince the majority. Subsequently, in the face of the wave of offended little people proclaiming nonsense (e.g., letting critics talk about “equity policies” is like letting someone expound a theory about the flat Earth), he recanted and stated (translated from the original in Spanish) “despite my comment that has raised disagreement with what I said, I do not want to give the impression that I found Olsson’s talk to my liking. Quite the contrary,” thus abandoning any reference to “I will defend to the death the right to say it.” Other researchers have expressed their indignation in private but not in public. As one researcher told me, “Actually, I wish I had participated in the discussion publicly, but my self-esteem was incompatible with getting mired in that peat bog (not to say plebeianism).”
He was right, and it would have been no use to argue with a pleb that does not listen to reason. Nevertheless, this is how the plebeians and their culture of cancellation advances, sweeping away the sacred enlightened principles of our civilization within the academy with no one doing a thing to stop it. This is the fate of our times, and this is how radical feminism and similar causes thrive: some madwomen shout, and people keep quiet, fearful that the next shout will be directed at them or because they do not want to get embroiled in debates with the filthy plebs.
The research center where I work is not an exceptional case, nor is Spain an exceptional country regarding its attachment to the institutionalization of gender ideology or, similarly, the repression of academic freedom . It is a global problem in the countries of the “free” world. In some centers, the experience in the curriculum is valued more than the experience in the chatter about “equality” and the knowledge about the science that pretends to investigate.
Ultimately, science will become totally docile and submissive to the political powers. Science will side with the powerful and become an indoctrinated science that repeats like a parrot the slogans of the prejudices that the official cultural caste establishes a priori. Science has ceased to be a beacon that illuminates the truth and has become an accomplice of dark powers, thirst for status, and the unreason of capital. Its pacific workers will continue to consent as long as they continue to support their bourgeois life.
III) These problems are not exclusive to science but also relate to academia as a whole. They are also not exclusive to our times. The weariness produced by university life and the lack of freedom has been the subject of many reflections for centuries. The academy is the place of the first degradation of culture; then came others that would sink it even further.
Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), a Spanish philosopher, writer, professor, and rector of the University of Salamanca who earned his living with his classical language classes, said in a letter to José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955, Spanish philosopher), “And I am drowning, dear Ortega, I am drowning; I am drowning in this environment of vulgarity and lies. I have seriously thought of leaving... where to? But no, this is my place.” (translated from the original in Spanish)
Unamuno’s question is one that many of us are asking ourselves: where to? Is the world of private enterprise, whose ultimate goal is money and nothing but money, better for intellectual purposes? Should we set up an eco-village and live by selling bracelets in street markets like hippies? Or, if we work as a cashier at McDonald’s, will we have the true life of a free thinker that will allow us to develop our intellect? No, we have to recognize that, within what we have in our society, universities and research centers are a necessary evil. At least they help provide and maintain a comfortable life to develop other intellectual aspirations. It is quite clear, however, that if one pursues an academic life exclusively to fulfill a task for which one receives a salary, poor would be their existence, and poorer would be the fruits of their thought.
Things in the business culture are getting worse, and we do not have to be very smart to see it. Old problems are being joined by new ones, and what was already bad is getting worse. Educational systems are also sinking in quality, which is highlighted every time an education system is evaluated. The presence of technology in and out of the classroom today makes the average student (of course, there are exceptional brilliant students) an increasingly useless being, more functionally illiterate for anything other than reading messages on their cell phones. “It is increasingly difficult to get students to read a whole book,” a university philosophy professor told me about his first-year students.
And why do I not leave science or academia? Why do I not leave the temple of the Pharisees? Maybe I will someday, but I am still here for various pragmatic reasons—where am I going to find another job with a similar salary that allows me to get up every day at 10:00 a.m. and do whatever I want the rest of the day?—and vocational ones—some of the last Mohicans among senior researchers still enjoy doing science and carrying out the implementation of ideas through their own efforts instead of doing management or directing others to do the work. Or maybe it is because of what Unamuno asked himself: “Where to?” As long as I do not find a better place...
In any case, I follow the advice given by José Luis Pérez Velázquez, a Spanish biologist and researcher based in the United States, in his book The Rise of the Scientist-Bureaucrat :
"The first advice that comes to mind is to avoid importance; do not become too important, do not climb too high in the hierarchy. The more important one becomes, the more probable the researcher will be invited to join panels, committees, editorial boards etc. If your aim is to become a very high-ranking scientist —the head of a department, division or institution— you can be guaranteed beyond any reasonable doubt that you will step into your laboratory no more than two or three times per month, and only for a few minutes. On the other hand, if you are content with being a P.I. with a laboratory, if you are happy being not tremendously renowned, then you will most likely enjoy more time to devote yourself to that most satisfying of scientific demands: experimentation, the pleasure of directly asking nature a question about one particular phenomenon and finding out the response, or, as most of times go, trying to find out the solution, for research takes a long time and many experiments fail for one or another reason; but yet, the answer is waiting to be found there, and there is nothing more thrilling for some, like yours truly, that discerning that answer in situ, looking under the microscope, scrutinising a protein gel, or analysing the results of a computation."
This is good advice for surviving the abundance of filth, and I am not doing too badly with it. In research centers we can observe the decline of the West as well as in any other place; to contemplate the setting of the luminous sun of reason and the spirit of enlightenment and continue thinking about what nature and humanity are and will be.
NOTE: This article is a translation into English of the original one in Spanish published here.