Samuel Arbesman in The Boston Globe:
If you look back on history, you get the sense that scientific discoveries used to be easy. Galileo rolled objects down slopes. Robert Hooke played with a spring to learn about elasticity; Isaac Newton poked around his own eye with a darning needle to understand color perception. It took creativity and knowledge to ask the right questions, but the experiments themselves could be almost trivial.
Today, if you want to make a discovery in physics, it helps to be part of a 10,000-member team that runs a multibillion dollar atom smasher. It takes ever more money, more effort, and more people to find out new things.
But until recently, no one actually tried to measure the increasing difficulty of discovery. It certainly seems to be getting harder, but how much harder? How fast does it change?
This type of research, studying the science of science, is in fact a field of science itself, and is known as scientometrics. Scientometrics may sound self-absorbed, a kind of inside baseball for scientists, but it matters: We spend billions of dollars annually on research, and count on science to do such things as cure cancer and master space travel, so it’s good to know what really works.
From its early days of charting the number of yearly articles published in physics, scientometrics has broadened to yield all sorts of insights about how we generate knowledge. A study of the age at which scientists receive grants from the National Institutes of Health found that over the past decades, older scientists have become far more likely to receive grants than younger ones, suggesting that perhaps younger scientists are being given fewer chances to be innovative. In another study, researchers at Northwestern University found that high-impact research results are more likely to come from collaborative teams — often spanning multiple universities — rather than from a single scientist. In other words, the days of the lone hero scientist are vanishing, and you can measure it.