Have the Best Ideas Been Discovered Already?

If you read a lot of publications, you will occasionally come across one that asks the question “have the best ideas been discovered already?”  In spite of the world today see the most innovations in history, there is still some thoughts and concerns that the best has already occurred. One reason is that some modern innovations have simply been the act of combining one or more ideas that have been around for years. These “me too” innovations do make some of wonder if the best ideas have been discovered already.

Are Great Ideas Gone for Good?

At Stanford, the Institute for Economic Policy Research conducted a study which did imply that great ideas are actually much harder to formulate. They see one big reason for this conclusion is that new ideas are just too expensive to explore and then implement. Their impression after the study was that people overall see a revolutionary idea such as the locomotive is inconceivable.

Discovering Research productivity Details

The goals of the researchers were to examine the productivity of research not only on a national level, but on a detailed level as well. In other words, they examined the research occurring within the fields of medicine, technology, and agriculture specifically.

The interesting correlation they found was that as spending on research is rapidly going up, the output of new ideas is declining in a big way. Their impression was that big research increase has tremendously helped the economy in America has actually offset the productivity decline. Amazingly, the number of research employees has grown twentyfold from the 1930.

These findings are bothersome – to say the least – since R&D is a huge reason for economic growth. According to the data, research spending will have to double every 13 years to maintain the existing growth rate.

Exponential Tech growth

Supposedly, we are currently living in exponential times and with all this technological growth.  This new study suggests the exponential tech growth is due to the huge increase in investment dollars for research instead of research output.


And when you factor in the effects of Moore’s Law, this report becomes even bleaker. If you remember the law, it stated that processing power will double approximately every two years. This study concluded that this growth factor has risen considerably.

“The constant exponential growth implied by Moore’s Law has been achieved only by a staggering increase in the amount of resources devoted to pushing the frontier forward,” the researchers say.

If you are assuming that such costs only apply to technology research, think again. Other industries like agriculture are seeing the same decline in research output. For instance, agriculture claims that from the years 1960 through 2015, yields on four primary crop groups have doubled – which is awesome. However, some of these crops required 25 times the cost for these yields. In fact, this study claims that research productivity has fallen by an average of 6% annually.

 The researchers also saw similar trends in the pharmaceutical industry.  They examined the expenditure for new drugs and compared that to the expected increase of life expectancy. Then they could determine the production of medical research.

This trend was also apparent in the financial sector. Data showed that in the stock market, about 85% of investment firms showed a sharp decline in their research productivity.

So when someone asks, “have the best ideas been discovered already?” Don’t laugh at them – they may be right.