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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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  • by sidthegeek ( 626567 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:56AM (#38435414)
    Ultimately it'll be up to the company to decide whether an older researcher is worth it, even after reading the new data. I personally think it would be.
  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:01PM (#38435514)

    With something like chemistry, unlike say mathematics or some parts of computer science that can be done independently, in the present day to make real advances you need a lab, and who has a lab is closely tied in with things like academic promotion. I don't have a link to statistics handy, but I recall reading that the average age at which people become professors in the sciences has increased drastically, as the PhD has gotten longer (from an average of 4 to 6-7 years), and even after that, people now typically do multiple postdocs before becoming professors. So you may not even be settled into your own lab, free to pursue you own research agenda, until late 30s or early 40s. That would tend to mean that most advances come from people >40 independently of mental acuity, because they run all the labs!

    Now you might say, you can still do groundbreaking work as a grad student or postdoc, and this does happen, but the credit usually goes to the senior scientist, not the grad student or postdoc in the lab doing the synthesis. So in practice it's very difficult to win a Nobel Prize without first becoming a principal investigator with your own lab, because you won't really get the credit for it even if you do do something groundbreaking.

    I'd be interested in seeing a version of this study adjusted for academic position. Are tenured faculty over 40 more productive than the few tenured faculty who are in their 30s? Or are we comparing 45-year-old tenured principal investigators with 35-year-old postdocs? My hypothesis is that the older-scientists-are-productive effect is mainly due to older scientists having more senior academic positions.

  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:07PM (#38435598) Homepage

    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.

    That's not what he said. Kuhn's views were subtle and complicated. He argued that revolutions in science occur for a variety of reasons, and that scientists switch from paradigm to paradigm and that one cause of switches is older scientists who are set in their ways retiring or dying. This is only one aspect of Kuhn's model. He didn't claim that revolutions were started by younger scientists. If one hasn't read the book I strongly recommend that people do so. Kuhn is an excellent writer. He's wrong on a lot of issues, but is generally wrong for interesting reasons. Of course, it doesn't help matters that we have people repeatedly giving inaccurate summaries of what he argued for.

  • Well duh. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by somersault ( 912633 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:08PM (#38435622) Homepage Journal

    Science and engineering are quite mature fields and don't change very quickly. The stuff you learn serves you well for a long time. Our best engineer just retired this year. He was stationed at Rolls Royce, a couple of Universities and then here. Amazing guy. He's in his 60s now and says that he can feel that he's less able to remember things and keep everything organised in his head the same way that he used to, but he was still supremely capable when it comes to deconstructing problems and solving them using "the literature", or figuring out his own equations by graphics a bunch of data in a spreadsheet.

    Obviously computing technology changes a bit quicker, but I still think that there are still concepts that serve you well and that don't really change in amongst all the other fads that come and goes. Interface and languages have been changing, and everything is getting more powerful, but we've not had any really new concepts since the internet. Virtual machines, parallel processing and thin client "cloud computing" style stuff have been around for decades, but people like to pretend that it's all shiny and new and that your experience becomes completely useless every couple of years..

  • Gawd Not Kuhn (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:14PM (#38435696) Journal

    I can't think of a scientist or philosopher of science nowadays that actually agrees with many of Kuhn's conclusions. Even Kuhn himself backed off of them to some extent. Sadly, the only time Kuhn is even trotted out anymore is by post-modernists and advocates of quack science to try to denigrate actual scientists.

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:18PM (#38435766)

    I'm not sure what scientific community you're working in, but he's pretty widely respected in the one I work in. The "working on the shoulders of giants" thing, on the other hand, is pretty widely rejected as overly simplistic, especially given some pretty significant once-respectable dead-ends like phrenology.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:22PM (#38435806)

    Paradigm shifts come about *because* of standing on the shoulders of giants. Just because Einstein borrowed his geometry from Riemann doesn't mean the change from Newtonian to Relativistic mechanics wasn't a paradigm shift. Why would you equate a paradigm shift to "coming out of the blue"? Paradigm shifts can happen glacially.

  • by Surt ( 22457 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:31PM (#38435936) Homepage Journal

    Note that it's the people with the post-docs in the labs actually making the advancements, though, it's just the guy with the lab getting the credit.

  • by RogerWilco ( 99615 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:31PM (#38435940) Homepage Journal

    I have colleagues of all ages. Each have their advantages.

    What really makes people productive ad higher ages is continuous will to keep learning.

    One of my colleagues just turned 70 yesterday and I'd take him any day over the 45-50 year olds at my first employer, as they hadn't learned a new thing in the last 20 years, while the guy who could be my father learned Python last year.

    Keep learning!

    Asimov wrote the same thing at the age of 70.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:43PM (#38436106)

    Things used to be simpler. Really. For any given field, there is many times as much information as there used to be.

    A couple of hundred years ago, someone could be a scientist and a philosopher and a gentleman. He could make discoveries in physics, chemistry and math. []

    Now, it takes a lifetime to become familiar with a reasonable portion of one field. The old guys are productive because they know more than the younger scientists. They become unproductive when they run out of energy.

    We used to think that the brain developed by weeding out connections. We thought that mental decline started in the twenties. Thanks to modern neurology, we know that the brain may continue to develop as we age. It's a matter of "use it or lose it". If a scientist keeps working hard, he will be every bit as intelligent and, therefore, productive as his younger counterparts.

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @12:52PM (#38436244) Homepage

    Profit margins and nothing else.

    They dont care about product quality, innovation or anything other than how much more did we make this next quarter...
    If they can hire young fools for less pay and abuse them, they are happy with the substandard product they get out of them. It had a higher profit margin.

    Yes Kids. your PHD in physics is a joke compared to the old fart that has actually worked in the field for decades after he got his PHD. He does in fact know more than you do.

  • by ILongForDarkness ( 1134931 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @02:22PM (#38437592)
    Well when you are in your 70's and your spouse is dead and your kids are living across the country home might not be > work.

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