Research

Older Scientists Are Touted as Offering Untapped Value

November 04, 2016

Matthew Modoono
Albert-László Barabási (at right), a professor of network science at Northeastern U.: "This is really good news for all of us who are more than 20 years into their career, like myself. Because it says that, as long as I keep productive, I have just as high a chance of having a breakthrough as I had at any earlier part of my career."
Federal funding agencies have been eager to support younger researchers, reflecting a widespread belief that nurturing the next generation is critical to ensuring the long-term success of the nation’s scientific enterprise.

A new analysis out of Northeastern University, however, is challenging the orthodoxy. Looking across a variety of fields, the study found that while a researcher’s productivity generally declines with age, creativity and impact do not.

One conclusion, according to the authors of the paper, published on Thursday in Science: A scientist’s lifetime potential can be reliably measured early in his or her career. Another: If it’s a matter of providing them with more opportunities, the nation might actually benefit from greater investments in its more senior researchers.

"This is really good news for all of us who are more than 20 years into their career, like myself," said one of the paper’s co-authors, Albert-László Barabási, a professor of network science at Northeastern. "Because it says that, as long as I keep productive, I have just as high a chance of having a breakthrough as I had at any earlier part of my career."

The study was an attempt to apply complex mathematics to extensive databases of research publications across a variety of fields to apportion scientific success to specific combinations of innate ability, effort, and luck.

The result is being touted by some experts as a fundamental breakthrough in individual-level understanding of scientific ability. It’s a "masterpiece," said Filippo Radicchi, an assistant professor of informatics and computing at Indiana University at Bloomington. It reflects "an impressive amount of data, with very provocative findings," said Stefano Allesina, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

Others, however, see the possibility of an overblown attempt to draw broad conclusions from metrics, such as journal impact factor, that are known to be deficient and distortable measures of scientific value. "By claiming to predict long-term career growth, the authors have entered dangerous territory," said Alexander M. Petersen, an assistant professor of management at the University of California at Merced.

The paper does suggest that there is something about scientists that produces consistent rates of citations during their careers, said Konrad P. Kording, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University. But that consistency could easily reflect factors beyond scientific talent, even including political networking or a willingness to embrace poor evidence, Mr. Kording said.

Forcible Retirement

Mr. Barabási said he hesitated to translate the study — with co-authors at Northwestern, the University of Miami, Harvard University, and several European institutions — into broad, real-world policy implications. But he made clear his belief that it might serve as evidence against mandatory-retirement rules in Europe and at some American institutions.

He cited the case of John B. Fenn, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work he had done at Virginia Commonwealth University after being forced into retirement by Yale University. A researcher is just as likely to have an important discovery at any age, and the greater success rate of younger researchers is entirely attributable to their higher rates of productivity at younger ages, Mr. Barabási said, summarizing the study’s statistical findings.

The study does leave open the critical question of why older researchers are less productive, Mr. Barabási said. But universities should figure that out, and "create the environment for individuals to be able to continue working, and don’t forcefully retire them like Yale did with Fenn," he said.

“That may be the stupidest thing we could possibly do for the most productive and creative scientists.”
James A. Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, reiterated that message, suggesting the possibility that too many midcareer scientists are promoted into administrative positions. "And that may be the stupidest thing we could possibly do for the most productive and creative scientists," Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Barabási steered clear, however, of any notion that his second major finding — the idea that each researcher has a consistent "quality" factor that endures throughout a career — suggests universities should move quickly to rid themselves of young scientists who score low after their first few papers. "I’m not a policy maker, I’m a researcher," he said, "and I don’t want to go there, because I don’t understand where this quality factor comes from."

That in fact could be an obvious direction for future research, Mr. Barabási said. The quality factor identified in the study seems to be a clear combination of ability and education, he said, but otherwise isn’t explainable.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.