May 22, 2024

Ability to innovate: Research has not lost any of its innovative power

The discovery of mRNA in the 1960s was groundbreaking. Suddenly completely new insights emerged that led to new developments. Something like this is called “disruptive.” On the other hand, research findings are “enhanced” if they build on existing knowledge. What's also important, as the example of mRNA vaccines shows: they have helped overcome the Covid-19 pandemic – but without the previous fundamental work on mRNA, they would not exist.

It therefore requires both subversion and unification. However, the relationship between them is no longer balanced, according to a study published in the journal “Nature” in 2023. After that, the science and innovation system’s production of pioneering things decreases.

The flow of citations as an indicator of the “level of creativity”

US researchers analyzed millions of scientific publications from 1945 to 2010 and patents from 1976 to 2010 using the CD Index. This index assigns values ​​between 1 (completely disruptive) and -1 (completely uniform). The evaluation is based on how strongly a particular scientific work is cited with other previous works.

For a patent, this means the following: If subsequent patents only cite this patent – let's call it Patent C – but not the patents that precede Patent C, then Patent C will be classified as disruptive – so to speak, at the beginning of the citation flow . However, the patent C in question belongs to the merging class if subsequent patents (D, E, F) also refer to earlier patents (A, B). So patent C is not entirely new.

Artificially created subversive

As a result, disruptive research declined sharply Study of nature The US research team questions the ability of the entire scientific system to innovate: “We find that papers and patents increasingly break away from the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern applies universally across fields and is robust to many different text-based measures.”

The researchers from the University of Basel, Dr. Christian Rutzer from the Center for International Economics and Business (CIEB) and economist Professor Dr. Rolf Feder was skeptical from the beginning, checked the calculations and found a fatal error in the measurement. Together with Professor Dr. Jeffrey Masher (Georgetown University), who was a visiting professor in the School of Economics in the spring of 2023, started their own project. analysis For patents. This was recently published in the journal Research Policy.

What is measurement error in nature study? This only included citations to patents from 1976 onwards and ignored all citations to patents published before then. “This time restriction has a strong impact on the results,” says Christian Rutzer. “Most patents from the early 1980s cite patents published before 1976. If you remove those citations, many of these patents become annoying. But not because they really are, but because many citations to earlier patents are ignored.”

Later, in the 1990s, there were fewer citations to patents before 1976. The number of patents incorrectly classified as troublesome also decreased. Since 2005, the measurement error has been close to zero.

Measurement distortion error correction

Macher, Rutzer, and Wieder demonstrate that the time restriction significantly distorts the result by taking citations from pre-1976 patents into account in their calculations. The values ​​changed immediately: the average patent imbalance in 1980 was no longer 0.39 as in the Nature study, but much lower at 0.09. It then decreased slightly to 0.04 in 2005. The authors also show that the number of highly variable patents actually increased in the long run.

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Co-author Rolf Feder categorizes the correction of a nature study as follows: “Scientific work always contains errors or one-sided interpretations. It is important that justified criticism is disseminated quickly. Just as in our work.” This shows that self-control in science works.