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Mumbai: In his book Zero to One, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel argues that modern scientific innovation is no longer groundbreaking. Scientific innovations should make ‘zero to one’ breakthroughs, such as the mobile phone or the combustion engine, but are instead making ‘one to many’ improvements to existing innovations.

Thiel’s theory could be plausible, according to a study by Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood that shows the rate of scientific progress is slowing down across areas ranging from growth and productivity to crop yields and life expectancy.

To show this, Cowen and Southwood measure the expected influence of scientific innovation on economic value by examining total factor productivity (TFP) in the American economy over time.

TFP is an aggregate measure of economic effectiveness, or how much a society can achieve with its inputs. The authors find that between 1919 and 1948 TFP averaged at its highest, more than 2% a year. This has slowed down since the financial crisis, growing at less than 1% a year.

They also draw from research on “the science of science" to measure scientific progress, which shows a decline on several different indicators. First, the number of per capita patents taken out by inventors is decreasing, suggesting that ideas have become harder to find. Second, there is a fall in productivity of crop yields. Third, in 2015 and 2016, the US witnessed a decline in life expectancy. Finally, there have been fewer gains made in the improvement of computing power and its affordability.

The study concludes that science has “become bureaucratic, with too many inputs and too much process required to reach success". Large scientific teams make fewer path-breaking discoveries than small teams can. The fix is to alter the internal research process.

Also read: Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?

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