Science, Superstars & Stocks: Is Everything Getting Harder?

Is everything getting harder? There is a growing meme that things are getting more difficult, from science, to drug discovery, to investing, to the top levels of sports.

Two quick graphs to make the point. First, in drug discovery, where we are seeing a decline in new molecular entities per dollar spent.

2011 07 01 0608

Next, in basic science, where we can see the same “difficult discovery” problem taking hold over time in various disciplines.

Science metrics

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.

Related posts:

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  2. Monetary Police is Science, Everything Else is Stamp-Collecting
  3. Science Friday: How Do Inventors Invent?
  4. China Leaps to Second Spot in Global Science
  5. Video from My Wired Science Appearance


  1. There's a big difference between

    1) The easy discoveries have already been made in field X

    2) There is a field Y where easy discoveries are still to be made

    In some cases, just go from field X to field Y is glib, especially for an individual.

  2. ForestFire0 says:

    This is a horribly reasoned article. As a commenter above pointed out, the decreasing size of planets and mammals would indicated an improvement in technology. It would have made a little more sense (but not a lot) to look at the number of planets or mammals discovered.
    Also, there are only a finite number of elements to be found. Even before some were discovered in the lab, their properties were predicted based on the periodic table groups. So referencing elements in a article about discoveries being more difficult is pretty stupid.
    Since I've criticized every other graph, might as well finish off the category. Inflation is not some constant multiplier applied every year. It's an approximation of how costs are changing through the economy. Some goods and services might be experiencing inflation at a faster or slower rate than the overall rate of inflation. So labeling it with "inflation adjusted" doesn't mean it actually is.

  3. kedar says:

    There is so much wrong with these graphs its ridiculous. The last graph plots the inverse of the atomic size of the discovered elements. Of course that means the actual atomic size is getting bigger. Not that that has anything to do speed of discovery anyways, since every subsequent element you discover must be bigger than the previous one. BS Logic is what this is

  4. @romit says:

    The graphs are very misleading as has been amply pointed out by the other commenters. Nothing in this article stands up to logic. For some reason, the author has tried very painfully to prove his hypothesis that "everything is getting tougher" but none of the facts states support that. I hope Paul deletes this post…

  5. PatrikD says:

    Yes, complete BS.

    The planets graph is just horrid. It hides the fact that the *rate* at which we're discovering planets keeps increasing, and that we're getting closer and closer to being able to discover earth-sized planets.

    This is in no way "going downhill" – we're getting faster and better at it!