Where Are the Younger Super-Creatives?

So, what are all the young geniuses up to these days?

Scientific American noted a few years ago that a study of Nobel laureates revealed that scientists are doing their most important breakthrough work later in life. It’s not just that they are receiving the Nobel Prize when they are older, because that has typically been the case; it is instead that the work that is ultimately leading to that prize is being done at a later age than it used to be. Why is that?

One suggestion is that there is more emphasis now on experimental work than on purely theoretical work, and experimentation tends to come later in life after one builds a foundation of knowledge. In other words, it takes years to build a theory you believe in, and only then does the testing happen that can lead to recognition later. Another possibility is that, as fields expand and our overall knowledge becomes greater, there is much more to learn before you get to the point where you are exploring what we don’t know yet. The gaps in knowledge and understanding, in other words, are getting harder to find.

I am concerned, though, that there might be another cause: the number of people going into science (or staying in it more than a few years) may be decreasing, leading to a higher average age among scientists in general. I don’t have any data to validate that yet, though I have read plenty of reports about the number of PhDs going into the private sector (drug companies, biotech, and the like) where they tend not to do the foundational research but instead emphasize commercial applications of previously-accomplished work. We are also seeing that many science PhD students go to the US from other countries and then, rather than staying there after they graduate, they are increasingly likely to return home, leading to a dispersion of scientific knowledge rather than creating long-term cooperative study and knowledge sharing in the same geographic space.

This is not just a matter of recruiting scientists; it’s also one of retention. Some of our younger scientists feel themselves beaten down and are just tired of doing what it takes to stay in the lab. A geneticist at the National Institutes of Health in the US, who had been doing major work that’s been very well received internationally, told me he was having trouble finding a position there as his post-doc was preparing to end. The NIH was not making any great effort to keep him, and private industry was calling, but he also considered doing policy work instead of being in a lab…he just did not see too many options for staying on the path he was on and doing the work he’s doing because the NIH is making it so difficult for him to do so. This was just a few years after completing his PhD; should we really be making people fight to stay in the field?

We have also increased the role of post-docs (but not the compensation) to the point where they are mentoring grad students and handling grant writing as well as doing the bench work they are supposed to be doing; these are roles that have typically been performed by more experienced scientists. The role of post-docs has historically been to support a principal investigator in a lab while gaining experience to move on to a more senior position, ultimately with a lab of their own, but in many cases we have given them the responsibilities of junior staff scientists without the authority or the compensation. At the same time, the people they are mentoring are not getting the benefits of a more experienced scientist’s years in the field. Is it any wonder some of our best young scientists are looking to leave the field before they can get to their greatest work?

We also need to decide what we want our scientists to actually be doing. One cancer researcher in Singapore told me he was supposed to be teaching in a teaching hospital and seeing patients as well as doing his research, so his attention was being diverted away from the areas he wanted to be studying. He ended up moving into private practice so he could focus on one thing rather than being pulled in multiple directions, and left research behind. If we make it hard for people to find cures for diseases, then who, exactly, is going to find cures for diseases?

Great discoveries are still being made, and innovation is happening, outside of the traditional scientific research model, so maybe it’s OK if people are going to the private sector. But if people are just dropping out of scientific research altogether, or never coming into it in the first place because they don’t see a future, then we’re missing out on a lot of talent. As new opportunities and new challenges affect scientific study we want to make sure we retain that capability, whether in academia or the government or the private sector. It’s fine if older scientists are doing the bulk of the breakthrough work, as long as they are not the last people who are going to do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *