With this year’s Nobel Prizes announcements, now’s a good time to contemplate innovation. Albert Einstein once famously said that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” That sounds rather damning but is there any truth to it? Does innovativeness really peak early? That’s a complicated question to answer, with researchers coming to mixed conclusions in the past 150 years with no consensus emerging in sight.
However, economists at Ohio State University claim they have made the most comprehensive investigation of its kind, finding that the innovativeness of biomedical scientists drops by 50% to 66% over the course of their careers.
“That’s a huge decline in impact,” said Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at The Ohio State University. “We found that as they get older, the work of biomedical scientists was just not as innovative and impactful.”
Weinberg and colleagues looked at a massive dataset that included over 5 million scientific articles published in the field of biomedicine over a 30-year period between 1980 and 2009. The study analyzed the relationship between these studies and their authors, including the number of citations.
When a study is mentioned by another study, the assumption is that the work was valuable and original enough to deserve credit. The more times a study is cited, the more important or innovative it is thought to be.
By itself, citations represent a rather crude metric for innovativeness, which is why the researchers also looked at other factors that may reflect the impact of a scientific paper. These include additional metrics that measure whether the article employed the latest ideas in its field and whether the article is drawing from multiple disciplines.
The analysis revealed that, on average, a biomedical researcher can expect to receive the most high-quality citations for papers published earlier in their careers. Articles published later in their career were cited only one-half to two-thirds less often than their most ‘innovative’ work.
Other studies, however, found more mixed results. When it comes to the most important innovators, like Nobel Prize winners, the trend across all fields seems to lean toward researchers being older when they produce their greatest works. In 2011, Benjamin Jones, an expert in innovation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Bruce Weinberg of Ohio State University analyzed 525 Nobel Prizes awarded in physics, chemistry, and medicine between 1900 and 2008. They found that by 2000, great achievements before age 30 nearly never occurred in any of the three fields. In physics, great achievements by age 40 only occurred in 19 percent of cases by the year 2000, and in chemistry, they nearly never occurred.
“Today, the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize-winning work is 48. Very little breakthrough work is done by physicists under 30,” Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University, said in a statement.
The new study, however, can explain this trend for the most exceptional innovators. Weinberg and colleagues found that scientists who produced the least innovative work in their early careers tended to stop publishing and quit academia. The more productive young scholars continued to produce new science 20 or 30 years later, perhaps encouraged by the recognition they were receiving from their peers. Weinberg calls this phenomenon ‘selective attrition’, whereby the least innovative scientists are naturally weeded out. But the same phenomenon can also explain why some studies found that innovativeness in science doesn’t necessarily decline with age.
“So when you look at all biomedical scientists as a group, it doesn’t look like innovation is declining over time. But the fact that the least innovative researchers are dropping out when they are relatively young disguises the fact that, for any one person, innovativeness tends to decline over their career,” the researcher said.
With these findings in mind, the authors believe that universities and other organizations that fund research would be well advised to strike a balance between supporting youth and experienced scholars.
“Young scientists tend to be at their peak of creativity, but there is also a big mix with some being much more innovative than others. You may not be supporting the very best researchers,” said Gerald Marschke, a co-author of the study and associate professor of economics at the University at Albany,
“With older, more experienced scientists, you are getting the ones who have stood the test of time, but who on average are not at their best anymore.”
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.