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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 28, 2010

Scientific Discovery: Getting Older (And Less Lonely)

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Posted by Derek

The NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) has been looking at the patterns of scientific publication and grant awards in the US, and has noticed some interesting trends. According to Inside Higher Ed, the study found (first off) that scientific publications are increasing at about 5.5% a year, and the report suggests that this might mean that any individual who reads at the same rate is seeing their own current knowledge decrease by the same amount.

I'm not so sure about that. While there are indeed more papers every year, the marginal utility of each new paper isn't necessarily very high - if I can switch into econ-speak myself. That's especially true if increased numbers of articles are due to new journals that end up (directly or indirectly) pulling things into the literature that wouldn't have even been published otherwise, simply because journals need to fill their pages. That said, the volume of interesting science done (and to be read about) each year is still increasing - I certainly can't deny that - but it would be a mistake to assume that "Scientific Journal Publications" are some sort of homogeneous good that can be measured as such.

Two other trends that were spotted make more sense to me: one is that the average number of co-authors is rising steadily. You wonder if that last part is just due to those physics papers that have six hundred people on them, but it seems to be the case across all disciplines. There are fewer and fewer solo scientific publications than there used to be, which confirms my own experience looking across the the chemistry literature.

Another trend is that fewer highly-cited big-news papers are coming from the younger end of the age distribution. The report says that "Peak productivity has increased by about 8 years, with the effect coming entirely from a collapse in productivity at young ages." The average ages for discoveries that later went on to win Nobels has been going up, as has the average age at which a scientist appears on their first patent. And that's worth thinking about - is it that our educational setup in the sciences sends people out into the fray at later and later ages? Or that the disciplines themselves have gotten more complicated, requiring a longer period before a substantial contribution can be made?

I think that a big factor is that younger scientists probably feel insecure working on high-risk high-reward projects. In academia, they're fighting for grant money and tenure, and I think that many people in that situation are careful about balancing "exciting and groundbreaking" against "likely to produce solid, publishable results". And industrial scientists tend to need more experience before they can make a big discovery as well, since the more applied fields have a larger body of specific knowledge built up.

The report contrasts these trends against the long-held image of the brave young researcher pushing toward a big discovery. I'd argue that the Nobel itself suffers from this problem, with its strict three-names-only rule. It's my impression that the committees that decide the prize have been having a harder and harder time of it over the years trying to find a way to stick to that. It has (inevitably) led to a number of deserving people getting left out - as well as a number of deserving discoveries that couldn't be narrowed down well enough. (Organic chemistry has the metal-catalyzed couplings as an example).

Finding ways to recognize large (often interdisciplinary) teams would be one step. Another change that might need to be made could include easing up a bit on the younger grant recipients, realizing that it's going to be increasingly difficult for them to hit things out of the park at that point in their careers. Could that also allow some of the better ones to work in tougher areas, with less fear of the consequences of failure?

Comments (22) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. Will on May 28, 2010 8:19 AM writes...

On the idea of young scientists not being as productive as in generations past

At the end of the 19th century, someone (sadly, I can't remember) remarked that all the interesting physics had been done, and all that was left was filling in the decimal places, then along came the relativity and quantum explosions, and a whole new generation of scientists were able to take the reins of the new fields.

It seems to me, at least in organic and med chem, that we are in a similar situation to physics in 1899. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a new field (medicinal biology?) for a new generation to take control

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2. SP on May 28, 2010 8:41 AM writes...

That doesn't seem to be a restriction on Nobels in non-science areas- they awarded one to the entire IPCC as an organization, so why can't they award science prizes to teams or institutions?

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3. Vader on May 28, 2010 8:45 AM writes...

These trends are unsurprising. The low-hanging fruit have largely been picked.

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4. Chem undergrad on May 28, 2010 10:12 AM writes...

@ 1,

I believe it was Lord Kelvin who said that.

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5. dearieme on May 28, 2010 10:16 AM writes...

Bruce Charlton suggests that "the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people". I wonder where such people go now?

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6. g on May 28, 2010 11:48 AM writes...

#5-That is a great link.

I'd guess that most of the increase in age is due to the fact that younger investigators do not have funding like the older scientists.

The academic career-track can be vicious. Suppose you get your first RO1, you do all the work, get some papers, and try to "hit one out of the park" on some groudbreaking project. The trouble with groundbreaking projects is that it usually takes 10+ years for people to realize that it is groundbreaking. Your RO1 will run out well before then and be out of a job.

So if you value your career, you will likely go with publishable work at first. Then, if you are successful, have multiple grants, and a good track record, you can put it out there on some really cool science.

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7. Lu on May 28, 2010 11:53 AM writes...

"Peak productivity has increased by about 8 years, with the effect coming entirely from a collapse in productivity at young ages."

Sadly, that's the peak of productivity not as an individual but rather as a manager of a research group.

By the way, Derek, how do you keep up with all this torrent of papers? Any tips would be much appreciated.

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8. whipper snapper on May 28, 2010 11:56 AM writes...

That's an interesting idea regarding risk-avoidance by young scientists, but p. 23 of the report seems to indicate that the findings are largely a demographic effect. Older scientists take home more grant money, and they hold more academic positions than they used to.

So...are any of you baby boomers willing to retire to preserve the future of science? Ah yes, I still have so much more to contribute!

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9. Really!!?? on May 28, 2010 12:05 PM writes...

People familiar with kinase research should take a look at this

is Danishefsky really on their SAB!!??

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10. Anonymous on May 28, 2010 5:37 PM writes...

@ Really!!?? You mean you don't like mM inhibitors that kill 50% of the rats with a single dose identical to the dose used QOD for the efficacy study in mice? After all, they did say other targets may in involved.

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11. Anonymous on May 28, 2010 6:52 PM writes...

Does the article take into account the fact that the age a person becomes a professor has risen? I would assume it does, but if not, it's not surprising that the age of peak productivity has gone up.

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12. BCL1 on May 30, 2010 7:29 AM writes...

The low-haning fruit comment is interesting, but does not go far enough. As all sciences advance and knowledge bases increase in volume, it becomes more and more difficult (i.e. takes more time) for a new (i.e. young) researcher to absorb the known information and to build upon it by learning something new. What happens when that knowledge base becomes so large that a person is no longer able to absorb it during their lifetime? Do we then reach then end of scientific progress? Certainly not the end, but new discoveries will be much harder to find.

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13. doctorpat on May 30, 2010 9:53 PM writes...

With numbers like "scientific publications are increasing at about 5.5% a year" I wonder how people can get the often heard throw-away line that "scientific knowledge is doubling every 2 years."

I guess it's just made up to prove a point.

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14. dearieme on May 31, 2010 8:25 AM writes...

84% of statistics are made up on the spot.

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15. Pete on June 1, 2010 1:07 AM writes...

It's interesting that metrics for scientific productivity and impact of individuals don't usually attempt to take account of the numbers of authors that articles have. Sometimes long author lists get truncated by abstracting services so authors at the end of the list don't make it into the database. Is being just another name on five 20-author articles better than having one single author paper?

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16. Vader on June 1, 2010 9:02 AM writes...


Yes, that's an interesting point. My guess is that as the knowledge base increases, so does specialization, since mastery of a narrow field is easier than mastery of a broad field. That does seem to be the historical trend.

This has obvious problems. There is less effective peer review as there are fewer peers in each increasingly narrow specialty. There is also a loss of cohesion due to lack of cross-talk between increasingly distant specialties.

Does it mean the end of science? Not while there's a buck to be made. Meaning, the rate of overspecialization will be least in the applied sciences, and greatest in academia. I think there's some history of that as well.

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17. bad wolf on June 1, 2010 9:54 AM writes...

"...But are the powerful forces of globalization now leading to the off-shoring of America's innovation and R&D? New statistics from the National Science Foundation certainly point in that direction."

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18. Virgil on June 1, 2010 9:57 AM writes...

Regarding the various comments on aging professors refusing to retire, I can speak first-hand that this is a significant issue in the US, where it traditionally has been thought of as a more European problem. Two examples...

1) An emeritus professor in their 70s, whom my chair retained as an advisor for several years, and as a result had a large impact on my research. All major decisions (equipment purchases, authorship on papers etc.) had to be "cleared" through this person because they were considered to be more experienced. Curmudgeonly doesn't even begin to describe the attitude. My productivity and publications have increased exponentially since this person finally retired.

2) Visiting professors who have been forced to retire in Europe by law, but live out the twilight of their careers in the US.

3) Emeritus professors holding on to lab space and refusing to give it up or let any equipment be ceded to younger investigators, just in case they get another eureka moment and need to do that critical experiment.

Yes, as mentioned above, we know you all have "so much to give", and we know your 401k/403b is probably still hurting, so you need to work longer now, but please, get out of the way already!

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19. Fred on June 1, 2010 11:07 AM writes...

The atlantic article was stupid. Inventive acts that occur in NAFTA or WTO countries are considered to have been developed on US soil.

The NAFTA rule started in 1993 while the WTO inclusion started in 1996.

An operator in China can thus compete directly for a US patent on largely on equal terms with a guy in Boston.

The assumption that foreigner producing patent= "guy on visa living in USA" is completely false.

most US patents are granted to foreigners because most people on the globe do not live in the USA. Anyone on the globe can apply for a US patent. That's why your industry is being outsourced!

Add to this out-sourcing fact one other: According to other NSF statistics, about half of all U.S. patents come from foreign inventors. You quickly see how globalized innovation has become. It's now more important than ever the U.S. remain an open, absorptive economy that can attract the world's best and brightest people and their ideas.

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20. dearieme on June 2, 2010 2:41 AM writes...

"Visiting professors who have been forced to retire in Europe by law": maybe, but in Britain at least it wouldn't be "by law" but by contract of employment.

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21. Aspirin on October 9, 2012 1:15 PM writes...

1: "Perhaps we are on the cusp of a new field (medicinal biology?)"

Yes, it's called chemical genetics and it was invented by Stuart Schreiber (who IMO deserves to win tomorrow).

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