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Superannuated Scientists Still Productive 117

An anonymous reader writes "Modern corporations seem to have devalued older scientists. They are all to happy to have their veteran employees, scientists included, take an early retirement so that they can be replaced by younger people who expect fewer benefits and will work for lower pay. Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science and author of the influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, believed that revolution in science was forged only by younger scientists. Some older studies of small academic groups seemed to show that scientific productivity peaks at middle age and declines thereafter. A newer study of 13,680 university professors found that scientific productivity still increases up to age 50, and it then stabilizes from age fifty to retirement for the more industrious researchers. When 'high impact' publications are considered, researchers older than 55 still hold their own. A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the majority of Nobel Laureates in Chemistry from 1901 to 1960 did their prize-winning work by age 40. After 1960, chemistry laureates were more likely to have done their prize-winning work after age 40."
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Superannuated Scientists Still Productive

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  • At last (Score:4, Informative)

    by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:07PM (#38436444)

    When I was a graduate student at Yale my advisor was a dude by the name of John Fenn. Very energetic and not at all ready to retire at 70. However he was forced into retirement and smaller lab spaces because of ageist university policies. At 70 or so he completed work on a GC-MS technique that won him a share of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    That technique was key to the development of protease inhibitors.

  • by Bowling Moses ( 591924 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @04:42PM (#38440520) Journal
    There is no maximum age, although hires and employees can get weeded out by the "must lift 40 lbs box" or "stand for long periods of time" requirements that pop up routinely even for office work. You've probably heard jokes about geriatric Walmart greeters, but many Americans work well into their 60's and beyond. The earliest you're eligible for Social Security is 62 with reduced benefits, or 65-67 with full benefits (the eligibility depends on birth date, born after 1960 and you must be 67). Since Social Security doesn't pay that much many Americans work longer, or work longer because retirement is unappealing. My uncle didn't retire from trucking until his early 70's despite having to unload the semi himself, and that's after doing that job for 40 years and having a bad back, bad shoulder, and a hip replacement. My mom (68) and an aunt (70) are still office workers. Farmers also tend to hang on, in the USA 40% of them are age 55+ and every farmer out there knows some crazy old bastard still at it deep into their 80's.

    More on topic, for scientists and retirement there's a big difference between those who work in academia and those who work in private enterprise. For the latter, unless you've moved up very high in the corporate ladder you're going to retire in your 60's, assuming you haven't gotten canned and replaced with a younger, cheaper scientist. For academic scientists there's tenured professors and then there's everybody else. Postdocs either find an industry job, quit science, or move up to an academic staff science job (tenure track jobs account for much less than 1%). Academic staff scientists either transition to industry, quit science, or are forced into retirement when their professor boss retires/can't get grants. Tenured professors rarely retire. Eventually they get demoted to Professor Emeritus, typically with restrictions on their ability to recruit grad students. There will be pressure on them to downsize their lab from the university and their department, but some can continue for many years winning grants and employing postdocs, techs, staff scientists, and undergrads. Eventually their lab will shrink in numbers and they may be reduced to a tiny space nobody else wants, or just an office. I know several professors who worked/are working into their 80's with reduced lab personnel and/or space, and have heard of a few who went into their 90's. Ernst Mayr never retired, instead going out feet first at 100.
  • by ediron2 ( 246908 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @08:08PM (#38443046) Journal

    Thus emeritus or 'advisory scientist' roles. I knew one that became lab/departmental machinist, and was delighted to shift to where he was teamed with a junior C&C hacker. While he had no aspirations of becoming a C&C programmer, he could instinctively tell the junior machinist things like: slow the mill down for a finer precision, do a preliminary cut here to check tolerances before doing the tightest work, lap/anodize/cut/coat/anneal instead of mill, and asking apt questions like: would material X work better?, etc. And he was still involved in lab activities, still had a place to hang his coat, still saw colleagues regularly, etc.

    A few years later, I worked on a semiconductor fab expansion project. It had two old engineers on temporary staff. Both had returned to field engineering after retiring. They were happy to be busy and contributing, even if they were just field engineers with a rank next to mine: tracking projects and punchlists and helping coordinate subcontractor jobs. I'm sure they weren't making 3x my entry-level salary, and I'm equally sure it was less about seniority-level pay than about doing substantive work.

    There are plenty of alternatives along the spectrum, including honorary slots, part-time jobs, and reduced pay and responsibility. Even the adjacent comment about an old guy saying 'which is this, java or vb'... I'll ignore the part where I regularly look at my own code and mutter 'Who the fuck wrote THIS and why?'. Sometimes, who the f*** cares if a coworker's showing signs from age -- At least try to find tasks appropriate for the worker and *cowboy up* and discuss their future salary with them to see if it'll work. You might be surprised at how balancing hours and salary and workload can keep expertise and still be cost-effective.

    Or you can go on presuming that an old guy or gal still working after retirement age is only there for the money... jeez. If I had a choice between coding into my 80's and either just playing golf or greeting people at walmart, I know which one would keep me saner.

"It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so." -- Artemus Ward aka Charles Farrar Brown