Given the pace of technological change, we tend to think of our age as the most innovative ever. But over the past several years, a number of economists have argued that increasing R&D efforts are yielding decreasing returns.
Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?, a recent paper by economists Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb from Stanford and John Van Reenen from MIT, shows that, across a wide range of industries, research efforts are rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.
Moore’s Law, the empirical observation that the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles approximately every two years, illustrates these trends. The paper points out that the number of researchers required to double chip density today is 18 times larger than those required in the early 1970s. In the case of Moore’s Law, research productivity has been declining at a rate of about 6.8% per year.
The authors conducted a similar in-depth analysis in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. For agricultural yields, research effort went up by a factor of two between 1970 and 2007, while research productivity declined by a factor of 4 over the same period, at an annual rate of 3.7 %. For pharmaceuticals, research efforts went up by a factor of 9 between 1970 and 2014 while research productivity declined by a factor of 5, an annual rate of 3.5%.