Never has so much money poured into scientific research—yet the results add up to surprisingly little. Have we finally come to the end of what science can tell us?by James Le Fanu / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
For science this is both the best and the worst of times. The best because its research institutions have never been so impressive, its funding never more lavish. This is the era of Big Science, the financing of whose mega projects is now routinely measured in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. While the total science research budget for the US just prior to the second world war ran to only $230m, by 1998 that figure had leapt several orders of magnitude. Biomedical research alone received $62bn and over the last ten years that figure has almost doubled again, soaring past the hundred billion dollar mark and dwarfing the GDP of a dozen countries. During this period, capital investment for new research facilities tripled to $15bn.
This endeavour is immensely productive, generating a tidal wave of research papers in scientific journals, whose thick shiny volumes occupy a greater acreage of library space every year. In 1980 a year’s worth of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (to take one example) already ran to a daunting 12,000 pages. By last year its size had grown eightfold to 97,000 pages or 25m-odd words, filling an entire library shelf. And this is just one of hundreds of scientific and medical journals. Put them all together, and it is possible to glimpse the scale of the explosion in new knowledge in the recent past.
So the best of times—but also the worst. Pose the question, What does it all add up to? and the answer, on reflection, seems surprisingly little—certainly compared to a century ago, when funding was an infinitesimal fraction of what it has become. In the first decade of the 20th century, Max Planck’s quantum and Einstein’s special theory of relativity would together rewrite the laws of physics; Ernest Rutherford described the structure of the atom and discovered gamma radiation; William Bateson rediscovered Mendel’s laws of genetic inheritance; and neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington described the “integrative action” of the brain and nervous system. The revolutionary significance of these and other discoveries were recognised at the time, but they also opened the door to many scientific advances over succeeding decades.