Thursday, August 29, 2019

What are scientists researching about?

Plant research in space (NASA)
In previous posts I have mentioned some dangers faced by the future of science in the face of the growing obstacles suffered by basic research and the tendency of politicians to prioritize practical applications. The arguments I offered in those posts were qualitative. It is possible, however, to obtain real quantitative data, extracted from the journal Science News, which publishes a fairly complete summary of the results of research in all fields of science and technology. By analyzing 23,946 articles published during 30 years, I have obtained the following table, which shows the number of scientific news related to fourteen of the most researched topics in the fields of biology and medicine during that period of time. (More than half the research results belong to those two fields).


Subject
1985-89
1990-94
1995-99
2000-4
2005-9
2010-14
Origin of life
11
15
21
25
15
12
Extinctions
39
25
20
19
9
7
Biological struggle
26
24
20
12
7
4
Marine ecology
9
7
19
22
36
12
Embryonic development
10
21
22
12
4
4
Biotechnology/genomes
108
42
51
48
54
42
Physiology of nervous system
33
48
65
54
43
45
Contamination
158
93
118
131
91
47
Cancer
178
206
166
139
91
52
AIDS
162
99
76
48
24
20
Circulatory diseases
114
110
63
50
21
12
Drugs/alcohol/tobacco
78
93
69
38
41
36
Vaccines
44
19
28
38
27
18
Transplants
36
25
28
15
13
8

The next table shows the number of news related to fourteen of the most researched topics in the remaining fields of science and technology.

Subject
1985-89
1990-94
1995-99
2000-4
2005-9
2010-14
Greenhouse effect
22
78
57
28
50
        53
Ozonosphere
50
55
19
8
3
6
Exploration of Mars
22
26
38
47
48
18
Telescopes
33
48
32
19
13
7
Extra-solar planets
7
10
38
41
52
57
Supernovae/black holes
57
50
33
40
33
21
Cosmology
32
60
56
67
41
46
Superconductivity
45
26
16
9
6
3
Atomic physics
119
87
83
65
40
59
Laser
21
25
16
16
5
5
Energy sources
80
37
33
46
50
19
Micro & nanotechnology
1
7
14
94
50
16
Computers
25
24
51
36
20
16
Polymers
14
50
15
13
13
5

Both tables summarize 6882 scientific news. Looking at them, it is obvious that, in some subjects, the number of results tends to decrease, in others (such as nanotechnology) to increase, in a few (such as biotechnology) it remains more or less constant. These differences are logical: when an important breakthrough takes place in a particular subject, the discoveries in that field initially shoot up, although sometimes there is no continuity (this happened, for instance, in the case of superconductivity). In other cases (as in marine ecology) a field where little research had been done suddenly moves to the foreground, in this case due to the increasing depletion of life in the oceans caused by over-exploitation. A specific subject may also be exhausted when, in the current state of our knowledge, most everything that could be discovered has been discovered.
The evolution of advances in medicine is surprising. The results on cancer, AIDS and circulatory diseases have been declining for years. In this case, it’s obvious that we don’t know everything that can be known about those diseases. Have society, researchers or governments lost interest in them? It would be interesting to know.
As additional information, the following table shows all the news published in Science News in 25 years, distributed by science.

Science
1985-89
1990-94
1995-99
2000-4
2005-9
2010-14
Biology
925
849
1299
1301
1128
876
Medicine
1714
1492
1424
1372
1051
590
Geology
469
438
336
226
208
174
Astronomy & cosmology
511
631
530
492
457
333
Physics
233
213
194
134
90
93
Chemistry
87
128
68
81
51
29
Mathematics
50
33
40
40
19
9
Information & Communication
163
205
208
227
135
76
Other technologies
246
250
185
182
128
81
Ethnology & sociology
44
44
45
37
26
21
History & Archaeology
92
96
85
101
92
102
Psychology & education
68
80
68
66
49
53
Other news
67
64
57
42
29
14
Total
4669
4523
4539
4301
3463
2451

The decrease in the total number of news published in the last two columns can be explained in part by the change in the format of the magazine, which went from weekly to biweekly, although the number of pages and the proportion of longer articles have increased. 
One can see a pronounced decrease in the results obtained in fields such as medicine, geology, mathematics, physics, chemistry and technologies, which is not so apparent in other fields, such as biology, history, astronomy and psychology, which remain relatively stable or even grow a little. Other fields (ethnology and sociology) exhibit just a slight decrease.

Manuel Alfonseca

3 comments:

  1. Hi Manuel -
    it would be interesting to see the most recent 10 years as well in this study.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll try to update the data asap.

      Delete
    2. I have updated the tables with data corresponding to another lapse of five years (2010-2014). As the current lapse (2014-2019) has not ended, I'll do the update around January 2020.

      Delete