Two quick graphs to make the point. First, in drug discovery, where we are seeing a decline in new molecular entities per dollar spent.
Next, in basic science, where we can see the same “difficult discovery” problem taking hold over time in various disciplines.
What, if anything, is the world trying to tell us? On some level it seems that things are getting harder — it is tougher to be a dominant player in sports given global talent pools, better training, more mimicry, etc. Similarly, science in many important areas does seem stalled, with progress proceeding glacially, whether it is drug discovery, or fundamental physics, or energy.
One way to look at this is that we have done the easy things. We have found the findable things that were easy to find, from science to investing, and we have lived through the era where physical talent and some training made you globally dominant in sports, and now things get very difficult.
The preceding is superficially true, but too pat.
Things have never felt easy at the time. Scientific discoveries never made themselves. The cost of discovery must be weighted against societal wealth; the pool from which athletes and top investors emerge has always been competitive. Granted, sports and investing are unusual in that the actions of participants makes the fields themselves more difficult by changing the nature of the domains — competing away easy alpha, so to speak. But progress in science has always been stop-start, with many plateaus, worthless forays, and box canyons, which causes progress to go to those best able to be clever, not just those with the most money or best lab (or training, or assets under management).
Yes, things are getting harder, and they will continue to do so. And I’m not in the camp that says we have an inexhaustible supply of anything just waiting for human ingenuity to be applied. But it’s worth reminding ourselves, especially with the current spate of stories about declining innovation, that we need to be careful about where the real scarcity lies — cleverness, not capital.