Oct 14, 2021

Axios Science

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1 big thing: New ideas struggle in a sea of science

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A flood of scientific papers may be paradoxically preventing new ideas from advancing — and slowing the progress of science.

Why it matters: Global warming, emerging viruses and the growing global burden of chronic diseases all underscore the need for faster, meaningful scientific innovations to help solve complex and consequential problems.

The big picture: There is an ongoing debate about why the rate of scientific progress appears to be slowing down despite an increase in the number of scientists, amount of funding for their work, and the quantity of papers they publish.

  • Some researchers believe the cause is fundamental: The low-hanging fruits of discovery have simply already been plucked, meaning scientists have to work harder and more money needs to be invested to get what remains.
  • Others say as knowledge accumulates in ever greater amounts, researchers face a higher burden to learn about a field.

What they found: A new analysis suggests another possible source of stagnation: A deluge of new publications is leading to an "ossification of canon," Johan Chu of Northwestern University and James Evans of the University of Chicago write.

They found a massive inequality in how papers in those fields are cited, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

  • And "the most-cited papers maintain their number of citations year over year when fields are large, while all other papers' citation counts decay," they write. That crystallizes the canon.
  • They also found that in smaller fields, papers slowly rise into the top bracket, whereas in larger fields, the papers that do make it into the canon get there fast. "It is predetermined socially rather than scholarly," says Chu, who led the work.
  • In larger fields, most papers build on others — without disrupting the canon but in smaller disciplines, papers are more likely to be disruptive.

The impact: Ideally, scientific publishing is a mechanism for ideas to be assessed and then either advanced or abandoned.

  • But "there is so much new work that we just keep turning back to the old stuff and not overturning it," says Ethan Mollick, who studies innovation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Yes, but: The authors acknowledge there could be other explanations for their findings, including a field growing and citations concentrating as a field ages, but they say the size of the field still has the strongest effect.

  • There are also open questions about how to even define and measure concepts like novelty and fields that can bleed into one another, says Joshua Graff Zivin, an economist at the University of California, San Diego.

What's next: Perhaps ironically, more research is needed to try to tease out the mechanisms driving the findings.

  • Chu and Evans argue changes in the incentives and rewards for scientists to produce more science could help to spur true advances.
  • But, but, but: It's not clear what balance between radical and incremental science will best benefit society, Graff Zivin says.

Read the entire story.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: N.Y. Times; Cartogram: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

"For the first time since early August, the U.S. is averaging fewer than 100,000 new COVID-19 cases per day," Axios' Sam Baker writes. But more than 1,900 Americans are still dying from COVID per day, on average.

An FDA advisory panel today endorsed booster shots of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine for certain populations, per Axios' Marisa Fernandez. On Friday, they'll also consider boosters of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine and the question of whether vaccines can be mixed and matched.

The WHO named 26 scientists to a new advisory board tasked with studying the origins of SARS-CoV-2, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Coronaviruses found in bats in Laos indicate the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to infect humans can evolve in nature, Carl Zimmer reports in the NYT today.

3. Astronomy's 10-year plan

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Astronomers are awaiting the release of a series of proposals and recommendations that will guide the field for the next decade, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: Astronomy is at a transitional moment. Large ground and space-based telescopes are nearing completion, and the field is reckoning with sexism, racism and harassment — all issues that shape the science at least as much as new technologies and missions.

  • The document — called the decadal survey — won't just make recommendations about the next missions NASA and others should fund, it's also expected to address the inequality that's plagued and hindered the field.
  • Just 3% of Ph.D.s in astronomy were awarded to individuals from under-represented groups from 2002 to 2012, according to National Science Foundation data.

Catch up quick: Scientists have been waiting for the decadal's release since last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the teams putting together the document.

  • The release of the report is expected by year-end.

How it works: The decadal survey is expected to have three major pillars.

  • One will focus on recommendations for space-based telescopes and missions, including at least one new, expensive flagship mission to follow the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope.
  • A second pillar will focus on ground-based astronomy. It may include a recommendation on the future of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, which many native Hawaiians have protested for a number of years.
  • The third pillar will look at the state of the profession itself, examining what it will take to make astronomy more equitable and providing recommendations for how to make that happen.

Read the entire story.

4. Worthy of your time

The Moon didn't die as early as we thought (Tatyana Woodall — MIT Tech Review)

The world’s largest radio telescope zooms in on a furious cosmic source (Ling Xin — Scientific American)

HHMI devotes $2 billion to boost inclusion and equity in biomedical sciences (Usha Lee McFarling — STAT)

5. Something wondrous

Sea otter resting in eelgrass with eelgrass draped over its hind foot. Photo: Kiliii Yüyan Photography

Foraging sea otters dig for clams and crabs in meadows of eelgrass — a disruptive behavior that appears to actually protect the meadows, a new study reports.

Why it matters: The impact of the sea otters — which were nearly hunted to extinction in the North Pacific during the last century — underscores how reintroducing predators can affect an ecosystem.

  • Eelgrass meadows help to prevent the erosion of shorelines, provide a home and food for animals, and are important for indigenous cultures that have extensive knowledge of the meadows.
  • The meadows off the coast of British Columbia, where the new study was conducted, are remote and relatively healthy, but others around the world are threatened by commercial fishing and other activities.

Background: For decades, Jane Watson of Vancouver Island University and Linda Nichol of Fisheries and Oceans Canada have been monitoring sea otters along British Columbia's coastline.

  • Watson observed the sea otters (Enhydra lutris) digging pits in meadows of eelgrass (Zostera marina) and noticed that areas with otter populations flowered more often. She hypothesized the otters' behavior could be promoting conditions for reproduction.
  • Her now-former student, Erin Foster, later picked up that question.

How they did it: Foster, a research affiliate at the Hakai Institute, Watson, Nichol and their colleagues studied eelgrass at sites that had no sea otters or where otters had been reintroduced either decades ago or in the last 10 years.

  • Eelgrass is a flowering underwater plant that can either reproduce asexually (creating genetically identical offspring) or sexually (in which arthropods spread the plants' pollen like bees and each seed is a genetic mix of two plants). Genetic diversity in a meadow helps it to become more resilient to change.
  • Foster analyzed the DNA of eelgrass shoots in the pits of the "vegetated moonscape," as she describes it, created by the foraging sea otters.
  • She found genetic diversity is about 30% greater in meadows where sea otters have been established for two to three decades compared to places where they are absent or newly reintroduced. The results are published today in Science.

The big picture: The study shows how ecosystems aren't just affected by predators eating other animals and plants but also by other behaviors like foraging, Foster says.

  • When once-ubiquitous species are gone or restricted in their range, we think of it in terms of a loss of species, she says. "But we don’t think about the interactions some species may have controlled or driven."

Thanks to Aïda Amer for this week's illustration and Sheryl Miller for editing this edition.