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posted by LaminatorX on Tuesday February 18 2014, @02:30PM   Printer-friendly
from the 4x10^1-is-the-new-3x10^1 dept.
regift_of_the_gods writes "Science and technology are often considered young man's games. Isaac Newton worked out the details of differential and integral calculus and laid the foundations of mechanics and optics when he was 23 years old. Einstein was 26 when he had his big year, publishing papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and Special Relativity. Mathematicians aren't even eligible to win the biggest prize in their field once they turn 40. But a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research examining the relationship between age and peak output for great achievers in science (e.g., Nobel Prize winners) and technology concludes that the sweet spot for peak achievement occurs between the middle thirties and late forties. After that, in the words of the paper's authors, 'the frequency of great scientific breakthroughs tends to wane in middle age and continues to decline thereafter.' (No pressure here, but if you're in your thirties or forties as you read this, then maaaybe it's time to pick up the pace). The authors note that the peak productivity curve has drifted rightward (towards older ages) over the course of the previous century, presumably because of the tremendous growth in the knowledge base scientists need to master before making a fundamental contribution. The NBER paper is based on earlier studies conducted by multiple researchers going back several decades; two of the three authors published a similar paper in 2011, which was also noticed in the press."

[ED Note: I've often wondered if the long years of post-docs and junior research positions isn't squandering the peak creativity of a generation of scientists in support of their elders' projects.]
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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by NovelUserName on Tuesday February 18 2014, @05:36PM

    by NovelUserName (768) on Tuesday February 18 2014, @05:36PM (#1733)

    As a Scientist (I study brain computer interfaces for prosthetic applications), I don't see the lead up time as a problem. The specialization and detailed study required for a person to make important advances takes up till about 30yr old. After that you have a few years to find a position, set up a lab, start doing research under your own supervision, find funding etc. before you can really start producing good stuff. 35 is bang on for when I'd expect to be hitting stride.

    The problem I see is that productivity tapers off after 15 years. Do people burn out? Do their brains stop functioning the same way? are the 15yrs of success just riding on ideas they had in their 20s? Can we keep good scientists productive longer? should we be shuffling them to admin roles faster to let bright new minds take the helm? Do we need to encourage risk taking by more established researchers?

    All of that aside, I think that part of this may be that people tend to keep working in the fields they made their early seminal work in. Frequently a seminal work will take several years to digest through the community before it's recognized, and then several more years before the field has adapted enough for the next big breakthrough. This means that someone bright enough to make a significant contribution early in their career, is less likely to make them later on.

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  • (Score: 1) by m on Wednesday February 19 2014, @06:16AM

    by m (1741) on Wednesday February 19 2014, @06:16AM (#2179)

    One factor that I see contributing, besides "burning out" or "brains not working," is that older scientists are increasingly shunted into administrative / advisory roles. The scientists I know in the "over 50" category tend to devote more time to to things like being a department chair, or flying to meetings of national science advisory boards. I wouldn't say this is necessarily a bad thing; as a younger researcher, I love the fact that someone else is dealing with the boring political/administrative aspects of research, so I can put in time in the lab doing "creative" research. Older scientists haven't necessarily stopped contributing; instead, they're "behind the scenes" enabling the next generation of younger colleagues to be so productive. Right now, I wouldn't want to end up like that (a "senior" scientist more focused on high-level administration than the hands-on details of research), but perhaps my opinions will change in a few decades --- and I can certainly see a lot of contribution to the overall scientific endeavor by older scientists that wouldn't be counted by a simplistic "groundbreaking research papers" metric.