Young Academic Creativity

Max Planck said “Science advances one funeral at a time.” He was implying that older scientists are too tied to the status quo to accept evidence challenging the view of the world that they helped shape. This means that younger scientists are often the key to advancing the frontier of knowledge, so I was very interested in the Core Economics blog post on youth creativity along with their links to an interesting WSJ journal article on the declining scientific productivity of younger scientists and a related paper on science policy by Benjamin F. Jones. 

The WSJ article highlights the inverted U of productivity, where a person’s creative productivity peaks sometime between the ages of 25 and 50.  For physicists, mathematicians and poets, the age of peak productivity has historically been closer to 25 than 50 as fluid intelligence peaks earlier.  For biologists, historians, philosophers and novelists, the peak age may be closer to 50 than 25, as crystallized intelligence is more important than fluid intelligence in these fields.  The current NIH grant system tends to give grant money to established scientists, which some worry means that many scientists are getting money only when they above the historic age of peak productivity causing the relative productivity of younger scientists to drop. 

In the paper, “As Science Evolves, How can Science Policy?” Benjamin Jones tries to paint these changes as a natural reaction to the changing state of the process of science and thus as nothing to be alarmed about. His main point is that a scientific advancement pushes forward the boundaries of knowledge, the natural result is for scientists to be more productive later in life and to be more productive in teams as each member can contribute their specialized knowledge. He is not worried as much about whether or not the grey ceiling and bureaucracy in academia is preventing progress, but sees progress by on average older people and teams as confirmation that the frontier of knowledge is harder to reach.

It is very possible that the expanding frontier of knowledge is making science more difficult for younger people, but the knowledge barrier might not be scientific but social and political.  The evidence presented in the paper can be used to suggest that the bureaucratic obstacles are getting more difficult to navigate. The first place the paper looked at was the increasing age of noble prize winning scientists’ first great achievement and inventors’ first parents.  Both of these have increased since 1900.  Both of these may be due to an increased cost in money rather than time to get to the frontier of knowledge.  Advances in the frontier often put specialized tools farther outside the reach of amateurs. More recently, it may be due to the lack of personal control many scientists who depend on grants have over their research until they get their own grants and labs at a later age.

The paper also focused on evidence of the increased effectiveness of teamwork. Rather than a sign of scientific specialization, increased teamwork can be a sign that certain people are specializing in some aspect of the bureaucratic process. (The paper also shows that between 1975 and 1993, individuals working on teams of patent applications are more likely to jump fields in patent applications than solo inventors while in 1975 they were both equally likely to jump fields. This evidence could suggest an increased role of specialization, or it could suggest that on the margin would-be patent trolls have found it much easier to monetize if they work in teams instead of individually.)

Jones also found that papers published by teams have a higher probability of a large amount of citations.  A hypothetical example of non-scientific specialization could work as follows: Maybe one member is really good at getting grant money, while the other is the one with the ideas and the experimentation process (the one who might otherwise be a solo author), another is good at writing up the paper in the proper form and another is good at getting people interested in continuing their line of inquiry, thus earning citations and recognition for their work. If citations are often a tit for tat social game that academics must learn to master and that is improved by having more connections, which is another barrier in the frontier of knowledge that is relatively unrelated to the accumulated advances science.  This team advantage has reversed the solo advantage in a number of fields since the 1950’s, so these fields may be evidence that once fertile fields have become more and more politicized.

There is definitely something going on in the changing process of science, but to focus solely on the frontier problem as the explanation for recent changes papers over important structural problems. Treating recent changes as the new status quo and implementing policies with goals such as encouraging more teamwork, like the paper suggests, may make it even harder for the scientist to out compete the bureaucrat... in science.