America’s scientific work force is aging

The study, by David Blau and Bruce Weinberg, both professors of economics at Ohio State University, found that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45 in 1993 to nearly 49 in 2010. Scientists aged faster than the U.S. work force in general, and across fields — even newer ones, such as computer and information science. The study includes those natural and social science, health and engineering degrees.

The trend will only continue, with the average scientist’s age increasing by an additional 2.3 years within the near future, without intervention, according to a model included in the study.

I found this sentence illuminating:

Still, McDowell said he wouldn’t want to bring back mandatory retirement for professors.

Here is the study, here is the story, with some useful visuals as well.  As the article notes, even if older scientists are still productive, this can skew or limit the incentives for younger scientists and limit their creativity.


There is that, quite morbid, saying that science progresses one funeral at a time. It is allusion to the fact that disproved theories aren't abandoned by their proponents, but merely loose the ability attract new adherents and so die alongside their proponents.

If scientists are staying around longer, does that mean the progress of science slows down? Like a sort of scientific stagnation.

The notion was Planck's. Many years ago a psychologist looked into it and concluded that it was false: the old guard had accepted the New Physics about as quickly as the younger men. This was pre-internet so alas I can't give you a link.

That's once things are funded, but while they're still just a young whipersnapper's ideas, will they get funded? Anecdotally, many famous experiments have been done by graduate students against their advisor's advice.

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"science progresses one funeral at a time." still very much applies in forensic science. Internet and scientific data be damned.

You are not talking about scientists, but politicians and those who become judges, and to a lesser degree police.

Scientists have been clear for decades that the methods used by the "justice system" are not only not just, but also I effective and extremely costly.

But in suppose you will blame that on radical leftist liberals like Sessions, Cruz, Perry, Trump, going back to Reagan, Nixon.

After all, things were great in the 50s and 60s, but liberals have made everything increasingly worse as they have won election and changed political and economic policies to impose complacency so only old guys control everything, like science and engineering.


Note, scientists provided the method of cheaply and painlessly killing people decades ago, and various policy groups and policy wonks documented this in the 90s, yet politicians are determined to get as close as possible to the methods used by Nazis in their death camps. See Creque, S.A. "Killing with kindness – capital punishment by nitrogen asphyxiation" National Review. 1995-9-11. But of course, scientists have also provided lots of evidence that makes capital punishment clearly ineffective at delivering it's promised benefits to society equitably.

Thus the absurdity that is Arkansas.... but they just need to outdo Texas in their pursuit of bad science and killing people.

I am talking, from a first person perspective, about scientists. Specifically scientists (with PhDs) that work for the state. They have worked in a scientific field for many years and generated, in many cases, lots of peered reviewed publications. Their science has been used by the state to gain convictions. However, the scientific enterprise has moved forward and these scientists favored theories have been compromised. The scientists don't want to change (due to legacy effects) and the state doesn't like the new science (due to a reduction in convictions).

Thus: “science progresses one funeral at a time.” still applies for forensic science.

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How much of increased complacency is attributable to the increasing average age of the population?

Elon Musk is increasingly complacent as he gets older? Jeff Bezos?

Seems to me, the bad luck of being born after Reagan came to power, after Newt came to power, drives the increase in complacency.

Ike was never complacent, but he could never be a Republican today. Nor the Reagan of 1983 who cemented the legacy of FDR who totally rejected complacency.

The only thing conservatives aren't complacent about is forcing everyone else to be complacent.

Trump's budget is trying to force complacency on science and arts and deploying innovation.

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Grants have got larger and so have gone to more and more senior people. There is far too much centralization of funding - and it is easier to give a very large grant than a lot of small ones.

Look at CERN. Great project. But it means that it is run by very distinguished people in their fifties at the youngest. They will allow access in accordance with their prejudices about what is good science. That is, their friends and peers who are also very distinguished. It is noticeable that CERN has some lovely toys but they have discovered roughly nothing interesting.

These older people block progress. They have the best jobs, they get most of the funding, they make a career in science unattractive. It would be better to give every scientist under 30 a small grant to do whatever they like for a year or two and leaving the teaching to the oldies.

+1. This is an important observation.

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So, conservatives slashing funding in real terms and then hammering the people who oversee grant making for research work that is done by young people with small budgets and labs to do research is NOT the problem, but old science people who have projects with powerful political supporters.

Liberals put the SSC in Texas to win the political support from Texas conservatives (and liberals) like LBJ put a lot of NASA in Texas to ensure support for ambition.

But in 1993, Texans were satisfied with job growth, satisfied enough jobs in applied science existed, satisfied that Texas businesses had more than enough revenue, Congress was satisfied the US was a number 1 in science now that the USSR was gone, so proactive complacency was a no brainer, and SSC was killed.

CERN and scientists all over, including the US, we're not complacent. Thus CERN did what the US SSC would have done, with the US in the lead, at least five years later. But they did not settle with not knowing.

Complacency costs far less and involves much less risk.

Who is advocating spending lots more money in science these days?

Not conservatives. They will work hard to ensure their backers don't suffer funding cuts or lose tax dodges. But forcing others to be less ambitious is the only place they are not complacent.

As usual you miss the point. Good science does not need a lot of money. Pointless careerism does.

So CERN did what the SSC did but five years later. So what - what has CERN done? Given us a big hole in the ground. And the ability to download endless porn. So it is not a complete waste. But science? Not so much. How would the world have been a better place if Lubbock Texas has a big hole in the ground and all the porn spam in my e-mail box came with a Texan accent?

Important science is only going to come from unknown young men working alone. Hard to fund them. The rest is like building a copy of Saint Pauls in the middle of the jungle.

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What's the life expectancy of scientists? 85 years?

Scientists seldom smoke, they often jog, they tend to be skinny, they don't drink heavily or do opioids, so they tend to live a long time.

Scientists are slowly becoming more female, so that increases life expectancy too. And scientists are becoming more Asian over time, and Asians live longer on average than whites.

Comedienne Ali Wong has a funny bit about how long Asian women live.

Hmm... I know many scientists, and they certainly smoke and drink as much as the rest of us. There are a lot of immigrants among US scientists, so I wouldn't be surprised if smoking rates are higher since they're coming from places where smoking is more common like Europe and Asia.

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Is this simply the effect of the rapid growth of science during the post-war period that has since slowed?

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Looking at figure 1 in the linked article.......everything seems fine. Yes, the scientific workforce got older but the distribution is flat, meaning there is the same number of scientists at 35, 45, and 55 years old. The only way to make the distribution "younger" is by producing a bulge of young PhD students today that will be old in 30 years. What happens today looks like a long term sustainable trend.

Then, it's the first time I encounter the term "scientific workforce", so I had to look for the definition in the article. It is the following:

"The main source of data on US scientists and engineers is the restricted-use 1993–2010 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) of the National Science Foundation (NSF), a typically biannual longitudinal sample survey of the population with a research doctorate in science, engineering, or health, earned in the United States. We use detailed information on age, field of degree, job tenure, previous employment, occupation, and sector of employment on about 73,000 scientists aged 76 or less, across all fields (we refer to this population as “scientists,” although we include people with engineering, health, and social science degrees and all sectors of employment)........We supplement the SDR with census data from the Current Population Survey (CPS)...............they also help fill two gaps in coverage of the SDR: scientific workers in the United States who obtained a PhD abroad, and pre-1993 data......... (The SDR includes only people with PhDs, so our definition of the scientific workforce excludes graduate students. The age distribution estimates for the 20s and early 30s should be interpreted with this in mind.)"

After analyzing this block of article text you start to see interesting details. The first one: people with a Masters degree and PhD students are excluded from the definition of scientific workforce. So, you can be a Masters student doing research and aiming for a life doing research, or a PhD student doing actual research work but without the degree you count as zero. This is specially worrying when the median age at receipt of doctorate is 33.3 years old, figure 1 on this 2003 NSF report.

The second problem in the definition of scientific workforce is that is counts individuals with a doctorate degree. Thus, it doesn't matter what kind of job you do as long as you have a PhD you're part of the scientific workforce, i.e. Mr. Shaq.

Some questions arise. What about all the people that does research and engineering but doesn't have a doctorate degree? What about the people on a research career path but they get the PhD degree when they are more than 30 years old? the contrarian view from Nature: "Education: The PhD factory. The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop?"

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I'm puzzled that they should choose to pollute their figures by including "social scientists".

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"Yes, the scientific workforce got older but the distribution is flat, meaning there is the same number of scientists at 35, 45, and 55 years old."

But the population and economy have grown a good deal over the decades. You'd want those numbers to be increasing, not remaining flat.

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Agreed. Weird definition of scientist. The scientist I know, with by far the most patents, hasn't completed his Masters. He's been active research for 25 years. Also +1 for not including social scientists.

In the 80s, the idea was to get scientists to restrict the access to their work with patents because patents will generate wealth to fund lots more research.

Thus the battle over CRISPR was a conservative idea to advance science faster at lower cost, because young scientists will pay the license fees to other scientists to use their patented knowledge from money investors give them expecting patents to pay for using existing patents and the new research plus generate a high profit from licensing new scientists to offset the losers who fail to generate critical patents.

Decades of conservatives forcing complacency on science. Why try to change what we know?

So, which is more important? Patents? or completing his thesis and defending it to be elevated from journeyman to master?

Patents. Since the 80's, with Reagan in power and Newt soon following, producing results is important, not arguing about angels and pins like your crowd.

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BlackRock is hiring scientists (quants) to pick stocks and laying off experienced (but old-fashioned) stock pickers. That's the scientific work force of the future. Why? Because that's where the money is. "These managers, many of whom have Ph.D.s, might buy (or sell) Walmart’s stock on the basis of a satellite feed that reveals how many cars are in its parking lots as opposed to an insight gleaned from the innards of the retailer’s balance sheet."

I will suggest that this is the kind of complacency Cowen should worry about. But I'm no expert, and definitely no quant. Maybe there's truth revealed in such things as the number of cars in the parking lot at Walmart. Or maybe not. Maybe Walmart had so much excess capacity in the parking lot they decided to lease the parking lot to the Chevy dealer. When our best scientists become stock pickers we are in serious trouble.

That trend is at least two decades old. Yes, many of the finest minds in the country are employed doing such things. Many others are developing the latest gimmick for your phone.

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For those who choose not to read the linked article, BlackRock is all but abandoning stock picking done the old-fashioned way. This is a watershed moment in finance: BlackRock (BlackRock!) is laying off dozens of old-fashioned stock pickers and going almost exclusively with quants.

I think this trend is not a good thing. What has happened is that our financial system has become so large and complex that finding and trading on small frictions can be extremely profitable.

But what good does this trading do? The priests tell us it improves the allocation of capital and risk, narrows spreads for other traders, and generates a host of other wondrous benefits. I myself doubt that these things do in fact happen to any great degree. And to the extent they do happen, I doubt they make up for the opportunity cost of not having these people doing more directly productive work.

I've wondered about this as well. Not so long ago, brokers considered a security's future income stream at least as important as what some Greater Fool would pay for it.

Also, remember when they told us to calculate retirement based on interest at 8%?

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"Still, McDowell said he wouldn’t want to bring back mandatory retirement for professors."

Does this mean that scientists are professors? Why should the two vocations be so closely related? If true, then science as a pursuit becomes filtered by academia. No wonder politics is central to scientific misunderstanding.

I have no data, but my WAG would have been that professors represent perhaps 25% of scientists. Aren't the vast majority employed in industry working for Intel or Genzyme or something??

It's not a field like economics. You need a budget to do things.

Tax cuts and deregulation and economists teaching profit today is the top corporate priority has killed off 80% of scientific research at corporations.

You need to get public funding to get a few patents or trade secrets to get investors to give you money to quickly apply discoveries to generate profit to get funding to do applied scientific research. The Bell Labs, IBM, Kodak, etc science research divisions are pretty much wiped out.

When tax rates are low, the cost of paying scientists who don't deliver new revenue in a year costs too much to profits. When profits were taxed above 50%, science research cost half as much. And having scientists on the payroll meant you could get contracts from government to do research under defense security terms. Buying equipment for those contracts helps fund your other corporate science. The lure of doing basic science let's you hire great scientist to help in certain development, plus give the corporation status. As long as they do not cut after tax profits much.

IBM's labs are still running fine today. Bell Labs crashed because of the breakup of the old AT&T -- Bell Labs became Bellcore, the research division for the Bell operating companies, but in their new business the BOC's didn't have need for research. Kodak crashed because silver photography crashed. None of these are examples of corporate research being wiped out. If the underlying corporation is healthy, they don't toss their research division in the trash.

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When you want to subsidize some knowledge production, professors are among the people who are able to demonstrate ability to satisfy expectations associated with a grant.

Some people also think that taxpayers would get better bang for their buck by turning to private markets that would then hold full ownership over the knowledge produced. Maybe that's the case sometimes. But very possibly the main reason for the academics tending to win bids or applications to access subsidies to knowledge production is because they well suited to it. And if they aren't interested in applying for grants for research specified by funders, they are generally quite free to follow their curiosity once tenure is obtained.

Well, that has been the policy implemented since the 80s. Has privatizing science generate more cutting edge science since the 80s than from the 30s to 1980, or from the Morrill Land Grants, post civil war?

It is an article of faith that scientific production is higher when it is in the private sector and more highly paid.

I can see that this can attract more minds. But whether this leads to production of more relevant knowledge is a different question.

Similarly, I wonder what we have lost in tens of thousands of the potentially best physicists working as quants in finance instead, fighting over pie instead of moving humanity forward.

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Two words ... Logan's Run.

If my dental assistant is Farah Fawcett and I can dial Jenny Agutter for sex any time I want, I say, bring it on! An early death is a small price to pay.

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I'd argue this has more to do with the inflation-adjusted contraction of the budgets of the major science agencies than researchers not retiring. More established people are usually more able to reliably secure funds, so if the pie is shrinking, it's young scientists who get disproportionately screwed. The solution here isn't to force people into retirement, it's to actually invest in basic research.

Here's the long term non-Defense R&D spending in inflation adjusted terms:

There's no evidence of any long term cuts. Instead the data indicates that it's far larger than it was during the boom times of the 1960's.

It's not really an explicit cut, just a failure to grow. R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has dropped, even as the role of research-supported industry has grown.

To look at NIH, for example, grant acceptance rates have dropped precipitously since 1960, when they were at 60%, to roughly 15% today.

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"Once people know how little the U.S. spends on science, they support more funding"

(Most "science" spending is medical, leaving little for a search for the next industrial revolution.)

“Once people know how little the U.S. spends on science, they support more funding”

Those types of polls are useless. Ask people how much that they are willing to increase their personal income taxes to support science funding. That will lead to a much better indicator of public support.

Feel free to run a poll framing it that way, but be aware that "The [National Science Foundation] FY 2012 funding average, based on population data from the 2010
Census, is $7.25 per capita."

Would your poll takers really say "oh no, that can't be $10! per person per year!"

"Would your poll takers really say “oh no, that can’t be $10! per person per year!”"

You are changing the goal posts. Per your original link: "In 2014, that figure was 1.6 percent of the budget, or about $67 billion. "

Tell your average Mom and Dad of a family of 4, that their current cost for funding is $890 per year. Then ask them how much more their family is willing to spend?

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I'm not moving, but maybe I wasn't clear. When I dropped the first link I was saying that "Most “science” spending is medical, leaving little for a search for the next industrial revolution."

With the second link I talk about the other part, what people think of as "science" (and not medicine).

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"“Most “science” spending is medical, leaving little for a search for the next industrial revolution.”"

Well, it's certainly true that spending on Health is just over half of total Federal R&D spending. Perhaps someone could make a poll asking the general public if they would be willing to cut spending on Health R&D and put the money towards other R&D. Certainly I would favor that approach.

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I think the various advanced research initiatives are so small that they can be expanded without much budget impact. ARPA-E, for advanced energy research, had a 2017 budget request of just $350 million. I believe that was cut recently.

Small minded and short-term thinking, if you ask me. Nothing makes an economy move like cheap energy (or more efficient uses, equivalently). We should research how to get more.

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"Tell your average Mom and Dad of a family of 4, that their current cost for funding is $890 per year. "

Ah, yes, free lunch economics.

Cut that $890 per year in spending per mythical family of 4 and their family income is cut by at least $750 per year.

The $890 does not go down a black hole.

Cancelling the SSC causes a mild recession in a region of Texas after 1993. Ending NASA STS caused a mild recession in Florida. Cutting military spending caused a bunch of regional recessions, some long lasting, in the US, especially in Blue States where Democrats traded jobs Democrats wanted to keep for jobs Republicans wanted to keep. The Mass and California science jobs were kept in exchange for the South keeping most of the war making jobs.

If the SSC were in Illinois or Ohio, Democrats would have been more motivated to keep those jobs than Texas Republicans. If more of the rocket jobs were in New England and California, then replacing the STS would have been a priority for Democrats in the 90s.

Cancer research spending creates both jobs and treatment hopes all over the US, heavily biased to women. Women don't seem to benefit much from space or physics. Not many jobs nor tangible benefits. Better weather forecasts benefit men more than women, commodity traders, construction, farmers, air transportation, are not places women are well represented.

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I agree that those basic science programs are a probably a pretty good investment

However, I wouldn't put too much emotional stake in their funding levels. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are probably going to eat up the Federal budget over the next 20 years. The DOD has enough support to probably survive relatively intact, but every other department will probably become fodder to feed the entitlement programs. I doubt many will go away completely, but I'd be surprised if most of them don't see significant cuts.

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In principle.

But the framing needs to be done carefully if you actually want a good answer.

If you bring the cost part into much immediacy or something extremely tangible, etc. and speak vaguely of the benefit side, people will not be able to calibrate in their survey answers in the same way that they could if properly exposed to a risk- and psychology-adjusted (from behavioural economics principles).

So you might have a control on one side being pretty much the precise question you have. A bias to the anti- side of the argument. And just as biased might be "would you support a coffee-per-week increase in personal taxes to double the amount of new scientific knowledge produced in America".

With these two controls, you can then set about trying to calibrate a good methodology in the present context. The problem is that people do not generally have consistent thinking in comparing things with different upside and downside risk over different time frames.

So how much do you give up today to produce some unknown quantity of scientific benefit? The only sure thing is the cost today, and we will be naturally attracted to preoccupy ourselves excessively with that certain and immediate cost.

How about, "would you like to see your kids get a better job in an industry that is growing rapidly eliminating job killing imports?"

If yes, then science research in solar, wind, batteries, heat pumps, heat/cold storage, semiconductors, superconductors, linear motors, levitation, materials would be good places to fund to end job killing imports of job killing oil.

And fossil fuels are job killing because they cut the costs of paying workers, because they save labor.

The coal steam engine was labor saving by replacing workers tending trees to make wood to create steam and workers making charcoal to make iron and steel, replacing mule and oxen drivers who needed farmers to raise and feed the beasts. Gasoline saved labor making alcohol which powered all the early internal combustion engines, as well as the wood and coal powered steam engines that were powering cars and wagons.

Oil is imported to replace the costly American workers producing harder to get oil at much higher cost.

Electric vehicles cost more because more workers must be paid to advance the state of the art, build the vehicles that have lower operating costs, but higher capital costs, than vehicles burning oil with half the US labor cost, aka jobs, of US oil.

I wish Trump would go to war on job killing oil imports. A fifty dollar a barrel tariff on imported oil would reverse the job losses that occurred since oil prices catered from $100- $80 down to $20- $30.

The problem is people have been taught to believe their costs can be cut by cutting the incomes of other workers without their own income increases expected from their parents and grandparents experience being affected.

Economies are zero sum. Pay others less, and others earn and spend less, and eventually you earn less, with rare exception.

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So tenure does promote complacency.

Imagine how complacent they would be if a new president could hire and fire academics at will!

It would be a system of endless purges and no scientific production.

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I find this study to be very interesting. For the average age of employed scientists to be going up each year it makes me wonder what the reason for this is. When thinking about this issue a few things come to mind immediately. Firstly, I wonder if the schooling in current universities for new and upcoming young scientists is inadequate, which is then reflected by the lack of young scientists being employed. Secondly, this makes me wonder if there is a lack of interest in the scientific fields in the younger generations, leading there to be a deficit of employed younger scientists.
Finally, this study makes me wonder if agencies are mainly looking for older, more experienced scientists who already have years or training under their belts. This concerns me because as the article states, "scientists are believed to be most creative earlier in their careers". I read an article a few weeks ago discussing the decreasing innovativeness in the United States due to increased imports or outsourcing of workers. Though, this is not directly related to this topic I cannot help but wonder if something similar is going on here. Could it be that the average age of scientists is growing every year because the scientists who are employed are simply being kept on, or older scientists are mainly being hired because they do things are certain way and rarely do things differently. I am just curious as to the possible reasons for this and I cannot help but think maybe firms, or whatever, are afraid of hiring younger scientists because they think differently, and may change the way things operate.

I think industry is sucking up all the brains before they can get PhD's. It's like how Bill Gates dropped out and went to work without graduating, only on a scale so large it will affect statistics like these. Nothing to worry about, though. Once these people specialize with knowledge gained from on-the-job experience, would they actually do their job better had they stayed another four years to get a PhD?

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The tendency of most people is to yank up the ladders behind them, which is what Boomer academics have done.

Only by Reagan promising them they can pay less in taxes, etc without losing their incomes, while younger people pay for the cost cuts by never getting the high paying jobs that higher taxes and higher prices paid for.

To deliver lower taxes and costs by cutting what everyone is paid would cause lots of opposition to tax cuts. By keeping boomer incomes high while cutting starting incomes of their children, and keeping their incomes down to pay for lower taxes and prices, not even the young will see income cuts, so they will complacently be paid less and kept out of jobs which boomers got.

Blame Reagan.

Even Ike made increasing the spending on science with tax hikes to fund it a priority.

Tax revenue increased by 50% during Reagan's presidency. Is there anything you think you know that is actually true?

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This is as much about young people being excluded from the field as anything else. It's increasingly difficult to get grants and existing/older PI's are better positioned to get them. At least in biology, they've had to create grants specifically create opportunities for young PI's.

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Note that their definition of scientific workforce -- Ph.D. recipients employed full time as scientific researchers -- is actually very different from the labor pool which does most of the work in science (grad students and postdocs).

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The trouble is that science is addicted to free labor from grad students. After you get the Ph.D., you can get a postdoc that pays a little more without too much trouble. But it's very difficult to get a permanent position.

Basically, there are two salary tiers. There are grad students / postdocs on soft money, who are funded out of grants and whose total costs are roughly the same (postdocs slightly higher salary, grad students tuition costs). There are senior people, who bring in grants and employ junior people. But it's very hard to get paid higher than the first tier without jumping all the way to the senior tier.

So in practice, it's very hard to get paid for *doing* science, as opposed to *administering grants.*

I actually made it into a good, permanent job. But, as Wellington said about Waterloo, it was a **** close run thing.

It's actually very similar to the NFL story from a few days ago. Once you create a category of worker that doesn't need to be paid a full salary (draftees / grad students), that category becomes low cost competition for the category that would like to distinguish itself from that group (replaceable veterans / early career researchers). So you see increasing market segmentation between replaceable low cost labor and established high cost labor, with little in the way of a middle class.

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Same thing happened with the skilled trades in the '80s. Lots of workers in a declining job market so people stop going into the field. Sooner or later, they old guys die or retire out and there is "shortage". Problem is, like a skilled tradesman, scientist has a long development.

Worse problem is, the young are more likely to do their big work. An older, tenured scientist will come to not see the problems that aren't currently approved by his peers.

"Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don't do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. On the other hand, in music, politics and literature, often what we consider their best work was done late. I don't know how whatever field you are in fits this scale, but age has some effect.

"But let me say why age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, ``I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.'' Well I said to myself, ``That is nice.'' But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems."
Richard Hamming: You and Your Research
Talk at Bellcore, 7 March 1986

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