The origins of new disciplines in biology

How do scientific disciplines emerge and develop over time? This study follows the development of 22 different research areas over the course of nearly two centuries.

Plants in beakers.

The goal of this project is to understand the emergence of new scientific disciplines. Creating a new research area takes more than just a good idea. It also requires hard work and intellectual, material, and social investment. But the supply of good ideas is always greater than the supply of available resources.

Scientists, universities, and funding agencies face the challenging task of sorting through different ideas and assessing which hold the most future potential. Social scientists have recognized the importance of social influence when individuals must make decisions with uncertain outcomes. Social influence, however, can flow through many channels, ranging from the scientific community, to universities bureaucracies, to the wider social milieu.

This project traces the development of 22 different research areas in the life sciences in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, from 1750 on into the twentieth century. Using digital records of the funding sources, research activities, and social networks of individual scientists, we find that scientists and bureaucrats both embraced success within the academic labor market as the primary marker of future value. Attention, resources, and prestige flowed toward research areas where market competition was already the most intense.

The results carry important implications for research policy. They suggest that academic science is quite good at fostering promising ideas that are close to its core competencies, but may overlook others that are farther away or otherwise unusual.


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