America Is Running on Fumes

“New ideas no longer fuel economic growth the way they once did,” the economists Jay Bhattacharya and Mikko Packalen wrote. In the past few decades, citations have become a key metric for evaluating scientific research, which has pushed scientists to write papers that they think will be popular with other scientists. This causes many of them to cluster around a small set of popular subjects rather than take a gamble that might open a new field of study.

I remember exactly what I thought when I first saw this picture: Hey, it looks like Hollywood! Driven by popularity metrics, scientists, like movie studios, are becoming more likely to tinker in proven domains than to pursue risky original projects that might bloom into new franchises. It’s not that writers, directors, scientists, and researchers can’t physically come up with new ideas. But rather that something in the air—something in our institutions, or our culture—was constraining the growth new ideas. In science, as in cinema, incrementalism is edging out exploration.

I couldn’t get the thought out of my head: Truly new ideas don’t fuel growth the way they once did. I saw its shadow everywhere.