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Is Youth Wasted on the Young… Scientists?

That was the provocative title of a session at the 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Saturday morning. The session was less controversial than the title suggests, but it did raise a provocative question, at least for me.

In the first (and most interesting) presentation, Catherine Beaudry, of École Polytechnique de Montreal, asked, how do the productivity and impact of scientists vary with age?

In the case of productivity, the trends are very clear, she said, and easy to explain. 

In the data set Beaudry studied — which was based on Canadian researchers — scientific productivity peaked around age 44, or 17 years after a researcher’s first publication. Why so late? One important reason is that more experienced scientists have more resources to work with. Another reason might be that better established networks lead to more co-authorships and more respect from reviewers.

However, research funding peaks at age 53, suggesting that for about 9 years, productivity declines even as funding increases.

What about impact? One curious slide — which Beaudry showed but discounted, saying it was not robust — showed that the very first publication was the most cited and that citations declined steadily thereafter. This result is clouded by the fact that first publications by most scientists are of graduate or even undergraduate work, and don’t include scientists’ original ideas. (Citations, by the way, were measured over the 5 years following publication.)

A second metric also suggested that scientific impact — as measured by citations — declines with age, and this result seems more robust, Beaudry said. She insisted that this was a very narrow measure of scientific impact and that later-career scientists impact science and society in a wide variety of ways. 

So, what was provocative? It was the suggestion — or maybe I just read it in, since no one actually said it — that there could be not just opposite trends but an actual direct conflict between publications and impact. After all, if your work is really revolutionary, getting it published is likely to be harder, and the longer you’re around — the more grant money and publications you accrue — the greater the risk of indoctrination into the status quo. The longer you’re around, the more successful you become, the safer your research becomes, in many cases.

Naturally, there are likely to be exceptions. Some scientists are naturally adventurous and eschew safe science. Others cultivate daring. But we’re studying averages here.

Could success be antithetical to transformational research?