In their element: The science of science

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Are we making fewer discoveries than in the past? Can war make us cleverer? The answers lie in scientometrics, the field of research that puts scientists under the microscope

Science begets science. In a letter to fellow natural philosopher Robert Hooke in 1676, Isaac Newton famously decreed that his own achievements were merely a matter of "standing on the shoulders of giants".

The more we know about something, the more we can study it, whether it's particles firing in a Swiss bunker, as with Geneva's Large Hadron Collider, or Newton's fabled fleshy fruit toppling from a tree.

Scientists have been examining their own careers for centuries, but only relatively recently as a separate field of research. This intellectual analysis, called "scientometrics", emerged in the 1960s, and is essentially the "science of science". It posits questions such as, "How is productivity changing?" or "How many researchers do we need?" and now, "Are scientific discoveries getting more difficult?"

This latter poser arrived in May, courtesy of Samuel Arbesman, the Harvard postdoctoral fellow, journalist and evangelist for academe, writing in the journal Scientometrics. His conclusions? That Newton wasn't being modest: his experiments really were a breeze.

Newton and his peers studied springs and apples; now we need supercomputer networks to check out broadly the same things. In an objective sense, says Arbesman, science is getting harder. "Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a 10,000-member team that runs a multi-billion dollar atom smasher," he says. "It takes increasingly more money, more effort, and more people to find out more things."

So what is scientometrics, and what else can it tell us? In simple terms, scientometrics is an "information science" that uses statistical techniques to put scientists under the microscope. Interested in how productive a certain university is? Proceed as follows: work out how many scientists it has, deduce how productive each of those brain-boxes is (why not rack up how often their research gets published?), add up all this output, and you have a reasonable means of quantifying a university's performance.

Much of modern scientometrics is based on the work of London-born information scientist Derek Price. He is best known for his 1963 book Little Science, Big Science, which made the distinction between the cottage-industry-sized experiments of the immediate post-war years and huge, international projects with budgets of billions of dollars. He argued that modern science had migrated from the former to the latter.

You can use scientometric techniques to analyse the reach of Price's own work. He wrote or edited 14 books and around 240 papers before his death in 1983. By 1987, his work had been cited in at least 2,200 articles, putting him in the top 1 per cent of cited authors at that time.

"Once of the first quantities to be studied in the field of scientometrics was the number of scientists over time," says Arbesman.

"The first PhDs in the United States were granted by Yale University in 1861. Since then, the number of scientists in the US and throughout the world has increased rapidly, even exponentially in some cases, and the rate of growth has actually been faster than the growth of the general population."

Ambitious questions can be built on sturdy foundations. What are the effects of war on scientific discovery? What does cheap air travel do for the accessibility of remote research destinations? And these analyses can feed into public policy. Last year, the US government committed an increase of $21bn (£13.5bn) for science funding. France has recently announced a €35bn boost. Our own Government, meanwhile, has a comprehensive spending review due in October. Scientometricists say their techniques will help decide what the coalition can slash and burn.

"Our methods are widely used," explains scientometricist par excellence Eugene Garfield, who set up the US Institute for Scientific Information in 1960. "But as is always the case when you're dealing with probabilities and statistics that are employed by policymakers, they can be used for good and for bad purposes."

On a basic level, Arbesman's paper is a good scientometrics case study. First, he scoured the web for three fields of research that had data easily to hand, then he set about analysing the data to answer his posited question: "How difficult has it been to discover things throughout history?" There were three fields of discovery that matched his needs and provided comprehensive data: the study of mammalian species, minor planets (such as asteroids), and the chemical elements. He assumed that the size of something equates to how easy it was to unearth (the smaller a creature or interstellar rock, the harder it is to spot – although larger elements are often the most difficult to synthesise). He then plotted this "ease of discovery" against time.



And what did he discover? "The difficulty levels don't drop by the same amount every year," Arbesman told The Boston Globe last month. "It declines by the same fraction each year. Think about Zeno's Paradox, where the runner keeps on getting halfway closer to the finish line of the race, and thus never quite makes it to the end."

Like many scientometric studies, the ramifications of this could be profound. Governments may need to spend exponentially larger amounts of money to continue research in particular fields. Recent reports marvelled at the 230,000 ocean species catalogued by scientists; in fact, global biodiversity is still an area that is largely terra incognita, and needs even more funds to maintain current rates of discovery.

Of course, Arbesman's findings cannot be extended everywhere. In some areas, at certain times, discovery becomes easier. At the turn of the 20th century, the formulation of quantum mechanics revolutionised how we understood elementary entities – the world's smallest things – and prompted a surge in research possibilities. Equally, advances in technology have sent genome sequencing into overdrive. "We are continually devising more clever methods of investigating the world," says Arbesman.

"Interdisciplinary studies between fields induce clever questions. We're not in the same position as we were at the end of the 19th century, when people genuinely believed we'd reached the limits of scientific endeavour."

While his findings are captivating, Arbesman is the first to acknowledge that his work is just a sneak peek at a diverse discipline. As with his ever-decreasing curve, with enough effort, scientometrics possesses a potentially infinite further number of possibilities. "Just as science grows exponentially more difficult in some cases, affordable technology can also proceed along a similar curve, and sometimes make science a lot easier," he concludes.

"An exponential increase in computer processing power means that problems once considered hard, like visualising fractals, proving certain mathematical theorems, or simulating entire populations, can now be done quite easily. And sometimes, discoveries can be done by being clever and more innovative, without much money."

Under the white coats: what scientometrics reveals

Still confused? A 2001 text by Dutch academic Loet Leydesdorff, 'The Challenge of Sciento- metrics: The Development, Measurement, and Self-Organisation of Scientific Communications', attempts to clarify the science of science.

The author explains how a mathematical consideration of communications can help to improve the study of technology and society.

In 2007, scientometricists Ulf Sandström and Martin Hällsten assessed persistent nepotism in the funding of medical research projects in Sweden. They found that a prior relationship with someone involved in the peer-review process increased an applicant's success by 15 per cent, but also that female grant applicants were treated 10 per cent better than their male colleagues.

In 2005, two scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, Ying Cheng and Nian Cai Liu, compiled a scientometric list of the top 500 universities worldwide, assessing institutions on their proficiency in six academic areas. There was an articulate spluttering from Oxford University when it was placed a full five places below Cambridge, with Harvard coming out on top.

In a 2006 paper in the journal 'Scientometrics', three scientists took their native Chile as a case-study to look at the culture of scientific innovation in developing countries. They found that the importance of science within such societies was not well understood – putting such developing countries at a disadvantage to nations such as the US.

American scientists Henry Small, Ann Kushmerick and Doug Benson investigated the motives behind scientific research. Around 80 per cent of scientists surveyed said they believed their work had a significant positive impact on society, with some saying that scientific advancement itself was a benefit. The rest presumably were more motivated by curiosity than philanthropy.

Eleanor Stanford

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there