Great Science, Great Scientists, and Icons

by Eric Drexler on 2009/11/27

Working as a young, self-funded, independent investigator, Charles Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by variation and natural selection.

Modern science funds independent investigators differently:

NIH grants vs. investigator age, compared to Darwin's age during his formative research.

It has become increasingly difficult for young U.S. researchers to win funding for their ideas.

(See also: “More about less opportunity for young scientists”)

Unfortunately, our iconic images of great scientists distort perceptions of age and accomplishment. Both Darwin and Einstein were in their 20s when they discovered principles that revolutionized human thought:

Young Darwin and old Darwin

Young Einstein and old Einstein

Scientists doing great work seldom look like Great Scientists.

[Graph adapted from Jason Hoyt, “Are there too many PhDs?”]

Update: I’ve done follow-up post in response to a discussion on the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science blog.

On evolutionary themes, see also:

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sebastian November 28, 2009 at 12:59 am UTC

Interesting. Maybe the key is to stop relying on government help to fund work? I suppose the world is a little different and a significant amount of money is needed for setup costs…

David Jensen November 28, 2009 at 5:11 am UTC

I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that Darwin was funded by his wealthy father — not self-funded. However, that does not detract from the main point, which is dominance of the gray-beards in NIH funding. I should note that I belong to the geezerly group.

neo November 29, 2009 at 2:58 am UTC

Great Genius returns to essential Man.

Patrick November 30, 2009 at 2:58 am UTC

Interesting…neat post. I wonder how this varies across fields. Lots of good astronomers keep working until they’re gray-haired, statistically speaking. Chemists? What about leading teams of postdocs, grad students, etc.?

Eric Drexler December 2, 2009 at 6:36 am UTC

@ David Jensen — Yes, that is true for at least some of his early (and critical) work. I’m not sure when he transitioned from being funded by his father too being funded by inheritance.

@ Patrick M — As I know you know, the typical age of peak creativity varies widely across fields; in some, new ideas are foundational and depend more on insight than information; in others, wide knowledge and reflection are essential. Classic examples are mathematics, at one end, and the study of history, at the other. Observational sciences like astronomy I’d expect be relatively age-neutral, aside from stamina and access to resources (trends which tend to counter each other).

Regarding research groups, this raises an important question of research culture. Consider two models: (1) Funding agencies directly support young (formally) independent researchers, and (2) funding agencies support senior researchers who support young (de facto) independent researchers. Being dependent on a funding agency might well be more restrictive than being dependent on a wise and open-minded mentor. The problem, as I understand it, is that most senior researchers employ younger researchers to further their own research, rather than supporting younger researchers with their eyes on new horizons. Nonetheless, a system in which most funding decisions devolved onto senior researchers with with the right incentives could, in principle, be a superior approach, fostering greater diversity, more nimble response to new ideas, and so on.

Karen James December 13, 2009 at 12:17 pm UTC

I can’t help wondering whether this simply reflects the length of time it takes to get a PhD and do two postdocs, which is now the norm before someone’s even got a job and therefore in the position to write a grant proposal. Of course even the 1980 curve is ‘too late’ for Darwin.

p.s. Darwin’s father died in 1848, eleven years before the publication of On the Origin of species.

Mark R December 14, 2009 at 7:00 pm UTC

Great science and the application of that science has it’s roots primarily in great creativity and revolutionary creativity is most evident early in one’s career. As we gain more knowledge in our respective fields, our beliefs become more fixed and focused and our efforts move more towards solidifying and refining those beliefs, at the expense of creativity.

For fun, let’s use rock n roll as a guage of creativity. While musicians, in general, continue to improve their abilities (as scientist continue to expand their knowledge), unique and revolutionay styles (ideas) are developed early. Great artist like Elvis, Dylan, and the Rollings Stones formed their revolutionary ideas (musical style) very early and continued to refine that style through out their careers. In fact, most revolutionary rockers do their best work early in their careers.

There are exceptions, however, really transformational ideas come from youth and/or inexperience.

Zen Faulkes December 19, 2009 at 5:15 pm UTC

The graph’s Y axis has no scale, which is bad practice.

I had a similar post on this topic here.

Dan Roe January 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm UTC

I write about my own difficulties finding funding as a young scientist here:

I think a lot of older scientists confuse this issue. Younger scientists have historically high debt:income ratios, and we have families to feed. We need more money to set up labs, yes, but we can barely feed ourselves, and can’t service our loans on NIH funding. It’s immoral.

The core problem is that the NIH is a pyramid scheme. After a decade of working with some of the top scientists in physics and neuro at Harvard and BU, I honestly and truly believe that we’d be better off to simply ABOLISH THE NIH and break the hold that the “gray beards” (thanks for the term, David Jensen) have on us. We’ve created a class of priestly elders who can intimidate us into submission. They (usually unwittingly) enfeeble young scientists by presenting their very limited experience as the “only way forward” for the younger investigator (out of insurmountable educational debt and into their own lab).

Obviously I’ll be fine. But most young scientists aren’t going to find a way to morph their talents into building cute little robots, and then have the additional success that I’ve had in getting into the media, and selling work to the rich and famous. How absurd that my art has funded my science!

…of course, I can speak out because I have nothing to worry about now. Yes, I’m on a soapbox, but it’s one that’s self-sustaining and I created it with my own money (we always look smarter than we actually are when we spend other people’s money, don’t we old timers?). So for those who still aspire to impress the priestly class I must ask the question that’s on every intelligent young scientist’s mind: WHY DID YOU DRIVE THE SHIP INTO THE REEF?!?! This happened on your watch, not ours. My old supervisor (an NIH gray beard) wouldn’t even admit it was a pyramid scheme!!!

For the sake of young scientists, and for the sake of scientific progress, let’s just abolish the NIH and start over. This system was set up only just after WWII, so it’s fairly new in an historical sense, and it’s not the way we’ve always done it. And of course pyramids run fine for a few generations, but now it’s run itself out, so let’s find a way to let it go and admit our mistake, rather than compound the problem and stick our children with the bill. The gray beards will just have to lower their expectations like the rest of us.

Science is a game for young minds. I’m sick of explaining it to old priests who make more money than I can hope to.

Agree or disagree, you’d better recognize that you’re creating a generation just like me. Please think.

dan roe

Eric Drexler January 2, 2010 at 12:47 am UTC

@ Zen Faulkes — Yes, your post hits similar topics very well, and with overlapping examples, which I (of course) think are great! Thanks for linking it.

Re. a y-axis label, you may be right. The units would be “percentage of total investigators per one-year age bracket receiving initial grants in a given calendar year”. The highest peak in the graph, on the 1980 curve, is about 6.5%, as shown in the original version of the graph that I adapted. When I first looked at the original, however, I found that the percentage-per-age-bin numbers distracted from the equally quantitative, dimensionless fact that the area under each curve equals unity.

BTW, your post “Don’t hate beauty” is scary. I’m not sure that I could stand making things ugly enough to meet the standards you mention. A genuine problem.

Dan Roe January 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm UTC

I just re-red my post. Please forgive my vitriol, I’m just passionate like all of you and feel that we should have seen this untenable situation coming. I’m proud to be a scientist, but disappointed in our seeming lack of mindful stewardship. Thanks to Eric and the rest of you for considering the issues faced by young scientists. Far too many are spending far too much time thinking about how to make ends meet at the expense of thinking about their research.

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