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Diminishing Returns? U.s. Science Productivity Continues to Decline

By Scientific American

December 10, 2010

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U.S. science research efficiency is caught in a downward trend, according to a new National Science Foundation (NSF) study, which found that the quantity of U.S. research output, as measured by an analysis of published scientific papers, is declining despite dramatically increased research funding. The study follows an earlier NSF study, which concluded that the number of science and engineering articles published in the world's major peer-reviewed journals flattened in the early 1990s, even as funding and staff increased. "[T]he evidence suggests that the growth trend either slowed or stopped altogether at that time," says the latest report.

Explanations for the decline suggested by the NSF report include greater research complexity, more comprehensive articles, higher costs for journal submission, and research expenditures overtaking inflation—yet none of these factors is conclusive.

In addition, the study found that the more abundant resources were not channeled into greater patenting activity. "There is no convincing evidence that patents are substituting for publications," the report says.

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