Are Old Scientists Less Innovative?

by on December 21, 2009 at 7:35 am in Data Source, Economics, Education, Science | Permalink

Paul Romer is interviewed in From Poverty to Prosperity, an excellent new book from Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz.  When asked about threats to progress Romer says the following:

One factor that does worry me a little is the demographic changes. Young people, I think, tend to be more innovative, more willing to take risks, more willing to do things differently and they may be very important, disproportionately important, in this innovation and growth process.

And then he gives an example of his worry in practice:

…instead of young scientists getting grant funding to go off and do whatever they want in their twenties, they're working in a lab where somebody in his forties or fifties is the principal investigator in charge of the grant.  They're working as apprentices, almost, under the senior person.  If we're not careful, we could let our institutions, things like tenure and hierarchical structures and peer review, slowly morph over time so that old guys control more and more of what's going on and the young people have a harder and harder time doing something really different, and that would be would be a bad thing for these processes of growth and change.  I'd like to see us keep thinking about how we could tweak our institutions to give power and control and opportunity to young people. 

Here is a graph from Jason Hoyt showing how much the average age of NIH grant recipients has already increased.

Hat tip for the graph to Aleks at Statistical Modeling….  Data here.

kris December 21, 2009 at 8:12 am

A lot of older scientists “outsource” the actual research process to their postdocs and researchers in their pay-so the question of how innovative they are is hard to decide. Many of them have the experience and competence to recognize innovative ideas generated by younger people in their groups, and so end up looking like they are very innovative, even if they themselves may not have many new ideas.

dearieme December 21, 2009 at 8:35 am

And Lindzen’s musings apply far beyond Climate Scientology.

Marian Kechlibar December 21, 2009 at 8:44 am

Quite a lot of innovation comes from industry, where the ossification trend will not be that important.

But generally, in an aging population, this kind of change seems to be inevitable.

anon December 21, 2009 at 9:52 am

I’m wondering if all innovation is government grant funded? It seems to me that there is increasing opportunity, not less, for the scientifically inclined to explore their interests.

We may call them “hackers,” “terrorists,” “meth lab operators,” “iPhone app developers,” “biohackers,” and many other things, but I don’t see any lack of innovation. To assume that innovation primarily takes place in government funded research seems just a tad myopic. Just because it is not easily measurable by economists looking at large datasets doesn’t mean it’s not there.

In my youth, many of us worked on cars, modifying them in numerous ways. I see youth today doing the same thing, and not just to cars, but also to computers. And I’m willing to bet that there are kids exploring biotech on their own.

Remember chemistry sets? Electronics sets? At Christmas?

    Bedroom biotech; Synthetic biology.
    The Economist (US) | September 2, 2006

    Like information technology before it, biotech is starting to spawn hackers

    MANY a computer business has started in a garage or a teenager’s bedroom. So, though, has many a computer virus. And where computing led, biotechnology may follow. As genetic information multiplies and the cost of hardware falls, bio-hackers are emerging.

    Biohacking is not quite yet within the range of a teenager with a Saturday job and a parental allowance, but prices are falling.

You don’t have to look very hard to find all kinds of DIY that is more than arts and crafts.

How do you explain things like Biotech Hobbyist, MAKE magazine, etc.?

Yes, just a tad myopic.

Bill December 21, 2009 at 10:59 am

Another reason lifetime tenure is not so great.

But, you will never hear that from academics, particularly those who otherwise espouse free market principals for others.

Let’s cut that minimum wage. Let the post-docs eat cake.

Rahul December 21, 2009 at 11:27 am

THe NIH and academia should adopt more “blind” reviewing. If I don’t even know who the researcher is I won’t know his age. That should reduce the age bias.

It stumps me that journals will send me papers to review with the actual names of the authors on them.

Bernie December 21, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I would like to see the age distribution of new grantees, persons who have never previously received a grant. A good part of the graph distribution change may just be that many of the same people who received grants at age 35 are still getting grants at age 60.

John Dewey December 21, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Ironman: “One driven by the relative size of the baby boom generation with respect to preceding and following generations.”

I agree, Ironman. Also, the percentage of degreed scientists among the total generational population increased with the baby boomers. So the 1980 and 1990 graphs are likely skewed even more because the generations preceding the boomers were just not as educated.

John Dewey December 21, 2009 at 1:42 pm

“showing how much the average age of NIH grant recipients has already increased.”

That shouldn’t be surprising. According to USA TODAY reporter Dennis Cauchon:

“For the past quarter-century, the American Medical Association and other industry groups have predicted a glut of doctors and worked to limit the number of new physicians. In 1994, the Journal of the American Medical Association predicted a surplus of 165,000 doctors by 2000.”

With fewer young physicians in the nation, the demand for practitioners may have driven up medical wages enough that research funds were less important to the new generation of MD’s. Older MD’s already dependent on research funding may not have possessed the newer skills for which practitioners were earning high wages.

If AMA has been successful in limiting new physicians, that likely explains not just the demographic changes in research but also the inflation in medical wages.

I.B. Wright December 21, 2009 at 2:19 pm

sceintists have gone political.

cut off all their funding.

it’s all fraud.

contrived to advance a political agenda.

be done with ALL of it.

Curt Fischer December 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm

THe NIH and academia should adopt more “blind” reviewing.

This is a good idea in theory, but in practice, NIH’s process for reviewing grants has in recent years have weighted the importance of “preliminary” data in grant applications, at the expense of the quality or innovativeness of ideas. If the way to get grants is to get preliminary data, older, more established investigators will be favored – they have the established labs and infrastructure needed to bang out preliminary data. So going to a blind reviewing system may not help much in the absence of other changes in grant reviewing.

dearieme December 21, 2009 at 2:42 pm

More research grants should be awarded by lottery.

agnostic December 21, 2009 at 4:24 pm

The go-to source is Dean Simonton. See his *Creativity in Science* (lots of data). In sum, the more fluid intelligence is required to excel — physics or math — the younger the scientist tends to produce their greatest work. Where success is more based on crystallized intelligence (having a large store of facts to examine) — medicine or history — they flourish later.

And of course that’ll vary within a field. More naturalist types of biologists like E.O. Wilson do their best work later in life. Physicist imperialists like Francis Crick will do their best stuff very early on.

Really, just look up your heroes and see when they did their best work — if they were fluid intelligence types, you’ll get pretty depressed. Einstein’s “miracle year” of groundbreaking work was 1905 — when he was 26 years old.

Intelligence research shows that fluid IQ starts to decline after 30, and really plummets in middle age. No time for dilly-dallying!

Rahul December 21, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Try adjusting for the aging of the overall US population; doesn’t look as drastic then.

John Dewey December 21, 2009 at 5:23 pm

ironman: “The data for NIH grants may be showing a generational artifact”

agnostic: ” That assumes that scientists are drawn from the population without respect to age, i.e.that age doesn’t predict how well they’ll do. But that’s wrong (see my comment above).”

OK. I looked at your comment above:

Agnostic: “Where success is more based on crystallized intelligence (having a large store of facts to examine) — medicine or history — they flourish later.†

As I understand it, the National Institute of Health grants are given more to MD’s and PhD’s in the life sciences than to mathematicians and physicists. So I do not see how your comment above makes ironman’s comments wrong.

Even if MD’s and research biologists did their best work in their early years, that wouldn’t negate what ironman was asserting. He pointed out nothing about the quality of work, but about the sheer size of the boomer population relative to that of earlier and later generations.

David C December 22, 2009 at 12:27 am

You need to look over the work of David Galenson at U Chicago. He seems to have established that two patterns of cretive devleopment exist across a number of fields; conceptual innovation or incremental innovation. He argues that you can be one of the other, but not both. Read “Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art”.

David C.

Candadai Tirumalai December 22, 2009 at 9:44 am

I have heard it said by those who know that the revolutionary breakthroughs in science are made by people in their twenties and thirties. In the humanities, by contrast, people can remain vitally creative into their fifties and sixties. The study of Nature and the exploration of Human

John Dewey December 22, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Mr E: “The BB’s don’t even know the incredible advantages they have had for decades.”

Can you explain what you mean, Mr E?

What period are you referring to when you write “The BB’s came of age when …”?

What do you mean by “a significant portion of the p[receding generation had been killed”?

When did this “most sustained growth of an advanced economy in history” occur?

Mr. E December 23, 2009 at 11:24 am

Sure John Dewey,

in WWII, 450,000 U.S. men died. They were between the ages of 24 and 35. There were only 120,000 people in the us at the time, so 60,000,000 of these are men. Of the 25 to 35 age group, this 450,000 is roughly 5% of the population of men in this age group.

Then we have a huge economic boom following the war. There is a huge demand for people at all levels.

So 20 years later, when the BB’s come of age, there is a huge management gap. The 42 to 50 demographic is low by 5% just from people dying, and we have a booming economy that is creating tons of jobs.

During this time, motivated Baby Boombers get promoted rapidly, because there is tons of opportunity and demand for labor, plus the labor supply has been reduced by a significant amount.

But 30 years later, these baby boomers are not retiring. Why should they, they have nice, fun, well paying jobs? You know, like getting grants to do interesting research.

It is a bit strange to have to explain this.

Ram December 26, 2009 at 11:43 pm

There is also a questionable assumption that the rates of hire in the university system have remained constant. If the rates have been declining steadily, which they seem to be, then it is only natural that a bigger proportion of the money is allocated to slightly older people. Of course, NIH panels and so on, privilege those with a track record, which essentially implies young investigators like me do have less opportunities to get bigger grants. On the other hand, with the current focus on having teams of researchers, instead of a single-individual approach, that difficulty can be overcome if you are part of a medium sized to big organization.

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thomas sabo jewellry December 14, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Not 20 years later in the 60′s, but rather in the 1970 to 1982 period of 4 is frequently true, and we can take it as granted for the moment. However, the point of federal regulation like CAFE is that it forces everyone to eventually make the same

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