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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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  • Re:Well duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:19AM (#38435772)

    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..

    As a young scientist in industry, in my company it looks like productivity is geometrically dependent on age. The 60 year old scientists are inventing left and right and solving problems across several disciplines on a regular basis while those of us in our 20s and early 30s are contributing much less broadly (and generally not a lot more deeply) because we don't have the experience to understand how the things we've learned in area A and what we read about area B should shape our strategy in solving a problem in area C.

  • by Defenestrar ( 1773808 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:30AM (#38435916)

    So what do you do with the feet-firsters? When you've got an octa- or non- genarian holding up at least three person's salaries (mid or regular-senior career), they'll eventually start to fade, and even if management decides they can afford the severance package - letting them go is likely going to literally kill them. It can get pretty ugly towards the end if you keep them around, especially if money gets tight or deadlines need to be met. It can be heartbreaking and extremely frustrating to spend hours reminding a well respected legend how to do some of the most basic tasks; repeatedly. You also choke off the promotion route for your mid-level persons, they'll effectively have to leave the company so you'll be left with an experience gap when the end does come. Seems like it'd be easier to deal with this problem in the mid sixties or early seventies when everyone still has their full faculties and can reasonably talk about it.

    Besides, if the publication curve is flat (and in almost every case it will eventually it will decline), it still makes more financial sense to hire two or three fifty year olds (or younger) to take the place of the one eighty year old.

  • by Defenestrar ( 1773808 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:42AM (#38436092)
    Watson was a postdoc and his name still goes before Crick. What you're describing about the credit to the senior scientist is either because they actually are driving a long term series of experiments (longer than a single grad student sticks around) or an ethical issue where the senior scientist is falsely putting his or her name on a student's work. People on Nobel committees are usually pretty good at spotting the difference.
  • Re:Well duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fzz ( 153115 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:52AM (#38436246)
    One of the most difficult parts of science is knowing what questions are worth answering. Coming up with a good question - one that is worth answering and can be answered - is often the hardest part of a PhD. Younger scientists generally have more difficulty with this than older scientists - it is something that you get better at with experience and with making a good network of people you interchange ideas with. But often younger scientists are (or rapidly become) better at the fine details when pointed in the right direction, but getting that direction in the first place is crucial. All this points to collaboration between people of different generations as being a very pretty effective way to have impact.
  • by cranky_chemist ( 1592441 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @11:59AM (#38436346)

    You nailed it.

    This is why any comparison of the productivity of researchers of different generations falls flat on its face.

    Forty years ago, most scientists completed their PhDs by age 25 and stepped immediately into tenure-track faculty positions. Cold-war research funding was plentiful, and within two or three years, most of those PhDs landed generous research grants that allowed them trick out their labs and fund small armies of grad students. From that point onward, their productivity was assured.

    Today, in addition to the 10 years of additional "training" PhDs receive, an ever-increasing number of mouths are taking bites from the ever-shrinking funding pie. Luck, at least as much as the researcher's brilliant ideas, is now the determining factor of success.

  • by cashman73 ( 855518 ) on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @02:41PM (#38438772) Journal
    Let's not forget about who actually did most of the work [] now, shall we?
  • by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [8691tsaebssab]> on Tuesday December 20, 2011 @04:59PM (#38440774) Journal

    I have, kinda sad really. They pretty much HAD to keep the guy since he was the only one that knew the old machines and the old code running on said old machines but when I was changing out his gear during the upgrade cycle I could hear him muttering "Is that VB, no that's C, now why did i put Java in there?" and you could see he was starting to struggle to keep the stuff straight in his head.

    I'm just glad i was only doing the work to help out an overworked friend and didn't have to be there when they finally let him go, because he really was a sweet old guy, just as nice as nice could be, but you could tell he was spending more time trying to figure out what language went where than he was actually coding. You just hate to see something like that, you really do. Its almost like watching a prize fighter that was good back in the day trying to keep going and you just want to tell him "stay down man, c'mon, just let it go already" because you know when they finally have to let the guy go its just gonna be sad and bitter and ugly.

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