As Science Evolves, How Can Science Policy?

Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University has written an interesting article on how the changes in the nature of scientific research pose challenges for science policy.  You can read it here.


Getting science policy right is a core objective of government that bears on scientific advance, economic growth, health, and longevity. Yet the process of science is changing. As science advances and knowledge accumulates, ensuing generations of innovators spend longer in training and become more narrowly expert, shifting key innovations (i) later in the life cycle and (ii) from solo researchers toward teams. This paper summarizes the evidence that science has evolved – and continues to evolve – on both dimensions. The paper then considers science policy. The ongoing shift away from younger scholars and toward teamwork raises serious policy challenges. Central issues involve (a) maintaining incentives for entry into scientific careers as the training phase extends, (b) ensuring effective evaluation of ideas (including decisions on patent rights and research grants) as evaluator expertise narrows, and (c) providing appropriate effort incentives as scientists increasingly work in teams. Institutions such as government grant agencies, the patent office, the science education system, and the Nobel Prize come under a unified focus in this paper. In all cases, the question is how these institutions can change. As science evolves, science policy may become increasingly misaligned with science itself – unless science policy evolves in tandem.

23 replies on “As Science Evolves, How Can Science Policy?”

Good read. The ‘knowledge-accumulation hypothesis’ makes sense. A lot to digest here – the critical failure of markets in producing new ideas – the role of generalist boundary-spanners in teams – and cartesian individualist Renaissance man extinct, albeit alive and well within the (social)science policy milieu …….. and in the social sciences themselves …….

On evaluation, just how interdisciplinary is the evaluative content on this blog, for example? Interesting question …

It’s pretty hilarious to see a post on this anti-scientific, denialist blog taking a position on science policy. This blog has a lengthy and consistent track record of hating science and militating against it.

“As Science evolves”..:) Ha ha that title gave me a good laugh! Two hundred years after Darwin was born and look at all the discoveries we have made at the cellular level, including the mind bogglingly complex DNA coding system and the scientific establishment still, despite everything that information theory and the law of entropy screams at us (not to mention the extravagance of nature and myriad of symbiotic relationships and irreducibly complex organisms) still believe that everything we see in nature evolved by chance acting on random mutations (that produce zero new genetic information). Even “Science” hasn’t evolved!!!

still believe that everything we see in nature evolved by chance acting on random mutations (that produce zero new genetic information). Even “Science” hasn’t evolved!!!

Well, we all knew that it was likely, given how much of a haven for libertarian and anti-AGW cranks this blog is – but here we have the first confirmed spotting of an Intelligent Design nutter on Irish Economy.

@ EWI.
Ad hominem attacks are a great rhethorical device but unfortunately not very scientific. Challenge my assertions with facts without resorting to references to consensus or ‘just so’ arguments and then you really will make me look like the knuckle dragging neanderthal that I am.

The ageing of first discovery has implications for entrepreneurship.
Marriage and mortgage and the fact that in Europe, the majority of tech companies remain small with less than 10 employees, increases the pressure for a “steady” income.

@ Ben

I don’t believe we get any contributions from the anti-science/anti-GM food folk!

As for others who may be regarded as “hating science”, querying a flawed Innovation Task Force report may well bring this branding; whether or not, isn’t questioning the conventional an essential aspect of science?

Challenge my assertions with facts…
….that everything we see in nature evolved by chance acting on random mutations (that produce zero new genetic information)

Maybe you should google “gene duplication” for examples of mutations that generate new genetic information – also “whole genome duplication” – which happened at least twice in vertebrate evolution and which are even more frequent among domesticated plants.

Also life does not violate 2nd law of thermodynamics (or law of entropy as you put it) you need to consider the organism and its environment (organisms are not closed systems). Increase in order of the organism is outweighed by increase in disorder of its environment. Just consider the amount of food that is broken down by complex organisms in order to maintain their structure…

These posts were a pleasant surprize!

We are right to be sceptical of what is pushed as science, these days. Then problem is that those who tried to kill science in the time of Galilea, are now masquerading as patrons of science. They have found an easier way of promoting their ideas.

Hence the probably false theory of the big bang with a plenitude of research to back it up despite evidence that red shift is not commensurate with distance!

DuPont made a fortune out of the Ozone hole scare, with new formulations of refrigerants, yet the hole is still as big as ever!

Now anyone with a brain and scientific knowledge is lumped in with anti-greens as a denialist. No wonder the AGW got such a grip.

Anything the MSM are advocating is probably harmful, else why the need to advocate it? Not a bad guide to BS in my opinion.

Therefore, investing in teaching what may be falsehood as “science” is as useful as teaching students that the earth is the centre of the universe. Not worth investing any resources in that!

Oil has undoubtedly been useful and for some nuclear has been helpful, too. But the route to fusion may lie elsewhere, more intimately connected with electricity than lasers.

What investment did Davy, Clerk-Maxwell, Hamilton, Michelson Morley need? Big science is in fact an entire industry specilized in spending OPM and tying down “scientists”. Let Ireland concentrate on small science using fermenters, quaternions, stem cells etc. Stem cell research can take place inside a person’s wardrobe, if they know what they are doing. Small labs would be better though! Lots of them, one or two inevery town. If only we had suitable structures ……..

I think the sort of intelligent design being espoused by any posters will be of the kind that can be proven, unlike evolution. I remain of an open mind. I still find it remarkabel that Lamarckianism is coming back, only called epigenetics or something!

Most of the BS can be detected by intelligent people who question things, as scientists should!


Rather poor scientific form to walk in here and simply p1ss in the place. Where is your evidence? Maybe you’re a member of the rejuvenated screamers sect … ? … and as no response, time to dismiss as noise.

It could be read as concluding that as the educated become more credentialed, less research will get to market.

As an aside, in ICT breakthroughs one can point to Microsoft, SUN and Google as companies founded by entrepreneurs who did not spend a long time in higher education (I’ll pass on rehashing Schumpeter’s distinction between innovators and entrepreneurs). One could argue that ICT innovations, depending on domain and entry point into the cycle, require less specialist support unlike the biosciences – but I am reminded of James Lovelock who worked on a shoestring and built Heath-Robinson style devices that worked well. Jones’ paper reads at a glance like a spruce up of Vannevar Bush’s influential policy document Science: The Endless Frontier. In general, I am uncomfortable with ‘market failure’ arguments that lead to more state capitalism please. In Europe, business investment in R&D has been in decline for several years. Getting to the bottom of this, no matter how unpleasant the conclusions, seems a worthwhile effort rather than pounding on government doors for greater largesse to the science research community.

Regarding the NIH and collaborative research, Jones overlooks that the NIH had to repeatedly warn senior researchers from the 80s onwards to include all contributors in research publications. This policy sharpened over the past ten years following attempts by medical journals to clamp down on both ghost writing and data falsification following several high-profile scandals.


When trying to evolve something, the gene-duplication-explanation doesn’t help the issue much, because once you duplicate a gene, you have a new piece of genetic information to play around with, but what good is that to you? If complex systems need specific parts, what sort of evidence is there that these duplicated genes will be the parts you need? Lynch and Conery found that the average gene duplicates about once every 100 million years -that’s pretty rare. If cone snails have a 1 year generation time, and the gene you need duplicates once every 100,000,000 generations, that doesn’t give you a very good chance of getting it when you need it. Furthermore, it has been found that the vast majority of gene duplicates are silenced within a few million years, with the few survivors subsequently experiencing strong purifying selection . Another study showed that geners are not very free to mutate around at all, that there is strong selection pressure on them. the actual mechanisms by which gene duplication is alleged to contribute to evolution are not very well understood:

“It is unclear how duplicate genes successfully navigate an evolutionary trajectory from an initial state of complete redundancy, wherein one copy is likely to be expendable, to a stable situation in which both copies are maintained by natural selection. Nor is it clear how often these events occur.” Lynch, M., Conery, J. S., “The Evolutionary Fate and Consequence of Duplicate Genes” Science 290:1151-1155 (Nov 10, 2000).

The bottom line is that the gene duplication explanation still leaves the details to the dice, and this pathway definitely hasn’t been experimentally verified. All that has been have found are protein homologies, and then inferred a vague ancestral pathway of gene creation. This explanation for the origin of real evolutionary novelty lacks a reliable mechanism and is little better than hand waving.

@Paddy Orwell
If complex systems need specific parts, what sort of evidence is there that these duplicated genes will be the parts you need?
Your reasoning is flawed. Complex systems that arise through evolution do not evolve specific genes for future needs. They generate diversity – if a particular gene variant helps the organism to survive then the organism (and the gene) proliferates. If the organism lacks the genes to survive a particular environmental challenge then it goes extinct. Extinction is as much a part of evolution as survival!

You seem quite keen on the Lynch and Conery paper – if you had read it you might have seen these paragraphs:

These results suggest a conservative estimate
of the average rate of origin of new gene
duplicates on the order of 0.01 per gene per
million years, with rates in different species
ranging from about 0.02 down to 0.002. Given
this range, 50% of all of the genes in a
genome are expected to duplicate and increase
to high frequency at least once on time
scales of 35 to 350 million years. Thus, even
in the absence of direct amplification of entire
genomes ( polyploidization), gene duplication
has the potential to generate substantial
molecular substrate for the origin of evolutionary
novelties….With rates of establishment of
0.002 to 0.02 duplicates per gene per million
years and a moderate genome size of
15,000 genes, we can expect on the order of
60 to 600 duplicate genes to arise in a pair
of sister taxa per million years, many of
which will subsequently experience divergent

Your conclusion that gene duplication is rare is therefore incorrect.

Your claim that genes are not very free to mutate again is selective and taken out of context. Every gene has its own particular constraints – some can and do evolve very rapidly while others tolerate almost no mutations. Individual regions of genes also differ in their ability to tolerate changes. It is these very differences that enable geneticists to reconstruct evolutionary relationships as highly conserved genes can be tracked back through evolutionary lineages and the changes between genes in different species can be me measured.

By linking to an overt creationist website as a rebuttal to the ‘open system’ argument I think you are exposing your motives in this debate. If you can find a specific claim in that linked page that you think invalidates the open system argument then feel free to post it. There are literally too many examples of flawed reasoning and quotations taken out of context in that article to address in a single post.

@ Paddy Orwell

Ok. Q.E.D. You win.

Well, rational thought and the Enlightenment wins, presumably. We’re just waiting on some parts of the human race to catch up.

@ The Alchemist

I’m sorry, but that’s nuts and completely at odds with the actual history of the vast majority of ICT that’s in existence (and came from academic research, the lot of it).


The point I made is that in several high profile cases, the entrepreneurs who founded the businesses did not spend a long time in higher education – ‘long time’ here taken in the context of Jones’ paper. Your point that ‘the lot of it’ came from academic research is debatable. Research itself is a poor filter of quality. The Y2K panic also came from academic research.

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