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The Frontier of Knowledge

June 14, 2012

In my “Future of Education” article, I mentioned how education is becoming more important as the frontier of human knowledge has expanded. This trend seems to be to be inevitable. First, humans are most likely to discover the “easy to discover” stuff first. Also, specialization dramatically increases productivity, and is limited by the extent of the market. As population and wealth increase, more and more people are able to devote time and effort to advancing human knowledge.

Obviously, this graph has some projection as it was made in 1994 and goes to 2025. In 2013, world population is about 7 billion.

Obviously, human knowledge is expanding. The only question is how fast, and how much does it impact the rate at which we make new discoveries and how we must change our society to adapt. The age at first discovery/invention has been increasing. Research team production has been increasing dramatically, because scientists now need to rely on many people’s information to remain productive.

Age at Major Discovery has been Increasing

Source: Jones, Benjamin F. 2010. Age and great invention. The Review of Economics and Statistics 92(1): 1-14.

International Cooperation has been Increasing

Source: Leydesdorff and Wagner, “International Collaboration in Science and the Formation of a Core Group”

Biomedical Coauthorship

Chemistry Coauthorship

Mathematics Coauthorship

The graphs are kinda hard to read, but the bars are 1980, 1986, 1992 and 1998. Even in mathematics, which is historically a fairly solo endeavor, coauthorship has been increasing.

Source: Timothy Taylor

Perhaps this is somewhat anecdotal, but it seems like the phenomenon of polymaths is declining and scientists at the tops of their fields are becoming more specialized.

Teamwork is becoming ever more important, as is specialization. Perhaps instead of spending so much effort on generalized education, students would start focusing on one field of study earlier. Also, culturally, people might have to become more trusting of the proclamations of specialists in their fields rather than trying to figure out things for themselves. I think it is critically important to maximize the efficiency of education rather than focusing on signalling and work on simplifying important findings so that students can become familiar with an area of study as quickly as possible. I think computer-human integration will be important in the future as computers can aggregate information far more quickly. But, as Niels Bohr said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2012 8:25 am

    I don’t have much to add to this one, but just wanted to say: Thanks for all the data and charts! Very eye-opening.

    • June 15, 2012 9:00 am

      No problem. I like graphs and this research was pretty fun. Many authors referenced the fact that coauthored papers are higher impact, and more frequently cited, etc, but I couldn’t find any historical trend data.

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