Whatever happened to the great scientific breakthroughs?

Funding models and the slowing down of revolutionary ideas.

By Ronin Research Scholars Jose Luis Perez Velazquez & Susan Khor

The history of science tells us about major findings in the understanding of natural phenomena that prompted scientific revolutions or substantial changes in perspectives. Somehow, it seems to me that these ground-breaking innovations, the great achievements in the foundations of science have come to an end. I may be wrong, but I do not see the likes of Galileo, Darwin, Bohr, Einstein or Gödel (to name a few) in current times. It seems like since the middle of the 20th century there have not been major scientific breakthroughs comparable to those of the past. Discoveries have been and are continuously being made, surely, but these are either details about sort of known phenomena or technological advances. There were technological inventions in past times too, but there seemed to be more balance between inventions and novel ideas in the foundations of the sciences.

Why have the great revolutions in science diminished in current times? Some have ventured that all possible revolutionary concepts and theories have already been discovered, there being nothing really new to be uncovered, e.g. John Horgan’s The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age (interestingly, there have been characters in different eras who thought that almost all had been mastered, even Aristotle said, more than 2000 years ago, that “for almost everything has been found out, although sometimes they are not put together”). I am not sure about this, we just do not know, cannot anticipate the future, but to declare there is nothing truly revolutionary to be discovered seems to me an audacious statement.

It seems like since the middle of the 20th century there have not been major scientific breakthroughs comparable to those of the past.

I would look for other reasons. Intellect, interest? I doubt it, scholars continue to have great intellectual capacities as in the past, and interest too in discovering reasons for natural phenomena. The education received? Perhaps we are getting closer to finding a reason, because now we start to catch the scent of something lurking in all aspects of research in our times: the funding situation. Scholars today seem to be more specialised than in past times. This is due to the increased competition. Competition for funds, and for jobs too, two sides of the same coin. Several ingredients have fostered competition; for funds or for fame, regardless, academia became more competitive, and this is not the place to repeat what we all know about the current scientific status quo, which I described in The Rise of the Scientist-Bureaucrat. This competitive atmosphere drives researchers to become more knowledgeable in specific aspects, hence we are all specialising more and more, and as Nicholas Butler put it: “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing”. Funding agencies tend to fund technologically-driven projects. There is an enormous difference in the money allotted to, say, research on the foundations of the sciences than on specific projects with immediate rewards.

The time came when technology was available and the nature of the research became more complex, requiring heavy machinery. Money, and lots of it, thus became necessary for some projects. But wait a second, if one examines many fundamental discoveries of the distant past, you will find not much money was needed. Kurt Gödel did not need great amounts of money to change the course of mathematical logic, neither Einstein nor Boltzmann to develop their theories. This may mean this type of research may not need wealthy funds, so why not do it today like in the past.

But things have changed. Science is immersed in society, and modern society is governed by financial concerns and bureaucracy, which has been occurring for centuries but today is much more accentuated. Coming up with revolutionary ideas and theories normally requires time to think, something scholars do not have today. We all know that academics are immersed in a flood of administrative burdens, in an atmosphere of extreme competition. In short, today time to think is a commodity not many can afford. Bruce Alberts and colleagues illustrate perfectly the situation: “Today, time for reflection is a disappearing luxury for the scientific community”. Scientists today must spend significant time searching for funds, almost regardless of what research they conduct. I am sure many of us have known of scientists losing jobs (even lives, e.g. Stefan Grimm) although they had enough moneys to do what they wanted, but that was not adequate for the institutions that usually require more, always more.

The current funding model is a major culprit in the slowing down of science, not of the technologically-based science which is thriving but of the more fundamental research that may bring about the breakthroughs of the distant past.

And how are funds allocated these days? We all know that too. Funding of projects with almost guaranteed results is greatly favoured over other adventurous projects. The current funding model is a major culprit in the slowing down of science, not of the technologically-based science which is thriving but of the more fundamental research that may bring about the breakthroughs of the distant past. The situation to come was already anticipated long ago, as the following excerpt from Leo Szilard’s “The Mark Gable Foundation” demonstrates, a tale about how to wreck science where we are told that to retard science you’d better set up a grant programme (despite being finally published in 1961, it was written in 1948, so this is a prophetic writing):


“I have earned a very large sum of money,” said Mr. Gable, “with very little work. And now I’m thinking of setting up a trust fund. I want to do something that will really contribute to the happiness of mankind; but it’s very difficult to know what to do with money…”

“Would you intend to do anything for the advancement of science?” I asked.

“No,” Mark Gable said. “I believe scientific progress is too fast as it is.”

“I share your feeling about this point,” I said with the fervor of conviction, “but why not do something about the retardation of scientific progress?”

“That I would very much like to do,” Mark Gable said, “but how do I go about it?”

“Well,” I said, “I think that shouldn’t be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make out a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as chairmen at salaries of fifty thousand dollars each. Also have about twenty prizes of one hundred thousand dollars each for the best scientific papers of the year. This is just about all you would have to do. Your lawyers could easily prepare a charter for the foundation….”

“I think you had better explain to Mr. Gable why this foundation would in fact retard the progress of sciences”, said a bespectacled young man sitting at the far end of the table, whose name I didn’t get at the time of introduction.

“It should be obvious,” I said. “First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly, the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. For a few years there might be a great increase in scientific output; but by going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. Some things would be considered interesting, others not. There would be fashions. Those who followed fashion would get grants. Those who wouldn’t would not, and pretty soon they would learn to follow the fashion, too.”


Szilard’s tale is a succinct description of the state of affairs.

But my co-author and fellow Ronin (SK) notes that there are encouraging signs that funding agencies are beginning to take more risk and to slash the burden of grant-application (see examples from New Zealand and UK). Nonetheless, SK observes that these initiatives, while commendable and moving in a good direction, are still very much in the tradition of an ex-ante funding model. They are still reliant on a committee of senior scientists to allocate funds. And researchers, if they want to be funded, still need to tailor their ideas to meet the objectives of funders. With more funding coming from corporations and philanthropic organizations in the foreseeable future, some researchers are concerned that funders may hold too much sway in what gets studied and how.

Perhaps it’s time to answer the call for revolutionary ideas with a radically different funding model. One that does not require researchers to play the mouse ‘n’ cheese game, and does not distract senior scientists away from their core-competency. One that reflects the serendipitous nature of scientific discovery to well-trained and prepared minds. And one that rewards intrinsic motivation, curiosity and an indifferent pursuit of truth. “[T]he core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively independently without external controls.” 

SK proposes an ex-post funding model that views peer-reviewed published papers as tickets to a global raffle*. At first glance, her ex-post micro-funds proposal appears to parody what I described in my book as the lottery of grants. But there are non-trivial advantages to such a funding model, in addition to those already stated above. For one, it does away with the need for a third-party to administer the awarded funds and do paperwork. These middlemen organizations (universities, research institutions) do not come cheap and may levy a 20% or more “tax” on awarded grant-money.

Second, SK’s model is open to non-traditional researchers–the hobbyist, the citizen scientist, the precocious teenager, the over-energetic retiree, the overqualified homemaker, the underemployed PhD– regardless of professional status, educational background, academic affiliation, nationality, age, field of study, etc. This differentiating factor may increase in significance as research positions at universities and institutions become less permanent.

SK admits that her ex-post micro-funds proposal is not practical for everyone, and does not purport to be a magic pill for all ills associated with research funding. It is not meant to replace existing grant-based funding models which, due to the large sizes of these funds, are essential to support the collection and analysis of observations of natural phenomena in the physical sciences, the development of better instruments and experimental techniques, and the training of future scientists. Enormous quantities of good quality data is what makes machine learning and data science (which can be done more cheaply and by almost anyone nowadays with MOOCs, open data, open science, open source software and now hopefully open funding) possible at all. It is right that such knowledge infrastructure be produced with public money, and public money be used for the public good such as better quality of life for all.

Rather, SK sees ex-post funding-models (hers included) as existing in parallel to provide alternative ways of paying creators of original scientific works in tokens that can be converted to real-world necessities like food and shelter. Citations, and alt-metrics are nice (and scholars should absolutely give credit where it is due), but you can’t eat them.

SK sees ex-post funding-models (hers included) as existing in parallel to provide alternative ways of paying creators of original scientific works in tokens that can be converted to real-world necessities like food and shelter.

The barrier independent scientists without labs like myself face –the inability to conduct physical experiments– may actually be solved by startups in the science-as-a-service model.

And now I return to the question that began this blog-post. Can an ex-post funding model lead to conceptual scientific breakthroughs? I don’t know. Who can predict this? What I am convinced, based on my experience of playing the game of grants, is that there is an urgent need for more experiments in funding models and studying their effects on knowledge production.

And you, how do you re-imagine research funding?


Jose Luis Perez Velazquez attempts to understand the brain-behaviour relation at a high level of description, seeking principles of biological organisation. Currently he is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and lives in the natural paradise of Asturias, in Northern Spain.

Susan Khor (slckhor at gmail dot com) is a recovered itinerant post-doc. She designed an abstract hierarchical system where levels have both top-down and bottom-up inter-dependency, and studies protein folding via shortcut network formation. Her current research interest is funding for unconventional scholars. She can be spotted walking backwards in a park somewhere.

*In a raffle, a winner is selected from the pool of tickets; a winner is not assured in a lottery. Restricting submissions to peer-reviewed published papers is a mechanism (albeit an imperfect one) to ensure a minimum standard of quality. There are legal compliance issues with online raffles that vary country by country and even state by state in the US.

6 Comments

  1. Ralph Haygood

    Thanks for this excellent essay on an important subject, which surely is central to the purposes of the Ronin Institute and the concerns of many of its members. Certainly, a major reason why I chose not to become a professor is that I wanted more “time to think” than I foresaw I would have as a faculty member these days.

    I’d add, it isn’t only scientific progress that has stalled. Technological progress too has stalled, or at least been chaneled into just a few directions. Among the best essays I’ve read on this subject is the late David Graeber’s “On flying cars and the declining rate of profit”:

    https://thebaffler.com/salvos/of-flying-cars-and-the-declining-rate-of-profit

    “Where, in short, are the flying cars … and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? … We are well informed of the wonders of computers, as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation, but, in fact, we haven’t moved even computing to the point of progress that people in the fifties expected we’d have reached by now.”

    Although Graeber acknowledges that sci-fi, even “hard”(-ish) sci-fi like “2001: A space odyssey”, is more aspirational than predictive, he has a point. For one thing, it wasn’t just sci-fi:

    “Even in the seventies and eighties, in fact, sober sources such as National Geographic and the Smithsonian were informing children of imminent space stations and expeditions to Mars.”

    And he observes:

    “Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television – and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?”

    Graeber suggests some reasons for technological stagnation. I think his ideas have merit, and to some extent, they cohere with the reasons for scientific stagnation suggested in the present essay. Particularly important is the pernicious notion that “business” and “management” furnish the most appropriate paradigms for organizing scientific research and technological development:

    “The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.”

    Anyhow, the stagnation, both scientific and technological, deserves much more attention than it has received yet.

  2. Susan Khor

    Thanks for the link. A few Graber gems from the article:
    “By poetic technologies I refer to the use of rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality. ”
    “Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs.”
    “…to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.”

    Here’s hoping Web 3.0 can redeem the internet from some of its original sin – although at bottom this
    really depends on all of us.

    Do flying taxi drones count?
    https://asiatimes.com/2020/11/air-taxis-set-to-soar-over-seouls-skies/

  3. I like the idea of ex-post funding mechanisms. But I worry that if each publication gives a ticket in a raffle, the goal would be to get as many tickets as possible – which seems like it would exacerbate the current problems with academia’s publish or perish culture.

  4. Susan Khor

    Thanks for the feedback.
    My take is that the “publish-or-perish” culture has more to do with how academia is currently setup and individual career aspirations; and less to do with having more or different sources of funding.
    However, an ex-post funding model that makes a simple direct relationship between paper quantity and chance of funding, could, as you observed, inadvertently incentivize less than ideal paper production practices.
    In general, authors are assumed to act in good faith, but mechanisms are also needed to deter gaming the system.

  5. Susan Khor

    In hindsight, I realize there could be a negative connotation with the phrase “recovered post-doc”.
    I’m using recovery in the sense that my priorities and perspectives have modified from that period of my life.
    I am appreciative of the opportunities and lessons from by my graduate school and post-doc experiences; even more so as I grasp more of what goes on backstage, e.g. the grant process.

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