Sunday, January 17, 2010


This is the second in a series of new posts on the subject of complexity in scientific research. The theme of this collection is that scientific progress, particularly in the realm of healthcare, has declined as a consequence of the high complexity in software and other technologies.


If the rate of scientific accomplishment is dependent upon the number of scientists on the job, you would expect that that rate of scientific accomplishment would be accelerating, not decelerating. According to the National Science Foundation, 18,052 science and engineering doctoral degrees were awarded in the U.S., in 1970. By 1997, that number had risen to 26,847, nearly a 50% increase in the annual production of the highest level scientists (1). In 1953, according to the National Science Foundation, the total U.S. expenditures on research and development was $5.16 billion, expressed in current dollar values. In 1998, that number has risen to $227.173 billion, greater than a 40-fold increase in research and development spending (1). The growing work force of scientists failed to advance science very much, but it was not for lack of funds.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published an interesting document, entitled, "Innovation or Stagnation: Challenge and Opportunity on the Critical Path to New Medical Products. (2) " The authors note that fewer and fewer new medicines and medical devices are reaching the Food and Drug Administration. Significant advances in genomics, proteomics and nanotechnology have not led to significant advances in the treatment of diseases. Extrapolating from the level of scientific progress in the past half century, there's not much reason to expect great improvements in the next 50 years. The last quarter of the 20th century has been described as the "era of Brownian motion in health care" (3).

1. National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators - 2000. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 2000 (NSB-00-1).

2.Innovation or Stagnation: Challenge and Opportunity on the Critical Path to New Medical Products. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, 2004.

3. Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century. Quality of Health Care in America Committee, editors. Institute of Medicine, Washington, DC., 2001.


-© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: complexity, scientific progress, jules j berman, medical history, informatics, software
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.