Monday, December 5, 2011

Chemistry Nobelists doing their prize-winning work later

Credit: Chemical and Engineering News
From this week's Chemical and Engineering News, an article by Bethany Halford on the productive years of Nobel-winning chemists:
"According to a study by economists Benjamin F. Jones, of Northwestern University, and Bruce A. Weinberg, of Ohio State University, the average age at which Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry do their prizewinning work is on the rise (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108) More than half of the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry from 1901 to 1960 did their prizewinning work by the time they were 40. Since 1961, prizewinners were more likely to have done their acclaimed work after their 40th birthday. 
At first blush, Jones and Weinberg’s study may seem like good news for researchers who don’t have to think of themselves as past their prime just because they’re past their 40th birthday. But Jones tells C&EN that the implication of his finding is a bit less rosy: Scientist may be spending their most creative years being trained, as doctoral students and as postdocs, rather than doing their own innovative research. 
“There’s a long-standing view that people are at their most productive as innovators early in their life cycle,” Jones says. But, he points out, if it’s true that people have to become experts before they can innovate, then scientists are spending more of their years training and less of their time innovating. Consequently, their lifetime contributions as scholars are going to be smaller. Jones estimates the decline in a given researcher’s career output is as high as 30%."
I used to have a biochemistry professor who would mutter to his classes, when covering a fundamental topic, "...And Professor X won the Nobel Prize for this -- shows how little you had to do to win the Nobel Prize back then..."

I'm reminded of him when you look at the graph -- it's fairly obvious that there was either 1) a couple generations of geniuses from 1921 to 1960 or 2) lots of fundamental discoveries to be made at that time.

Presumably, there are ways of short-circuiting the graduate education process to give especially talented researchers access to funding for their ideas sooner rather that later. But that's no guarantee, I suspect, that the next block on that graph won't see the yellow bar get bigger or the red bar get smaller...


  1. Nice! Meaning I still have a hope.

  2. FYI that this study came out a month ago and refers to all types of Nobel prize-winners, not just chemists.

  3. I blogged about this here. But the statement "Scientists may be spending their most creative years being trained, as doctoral students and as postdocs, rather than doing their own innovative research." points again to how evil the Ph.D. system can be. As Freeman Dyson points out, the problem is that during most Ph.D.s you are forced to focus for a long time on a single problem of most interest to your advisor rather than explore problems of your own interest, each for a short period of time. Conversely your advisor is also forced to stick with your problem even after he or she loses interest in it. We need an alternative path to glory.

  4. One of my committee members graduated at 22, went to grad school for 3 years (top school/famous PI), did a less than one year postdoc (ditto) and was a PI himself at 25. I don't know if that was the norm back then but it was far from the norm today.

    The under-30 portion has moved from 15% at the turn of the century to <5% now, and even that number is amazing considering how many are not even independent at that point.

  5. Bad wolf...The venerable Prof. Barry Trost, Professor at Stanford University, fulfill those criteria. An early start at MIT (famous Prof. Hubert House) followed by an appointment at Madison, Wisconsin at age 24! The rest is history. Beat that, I say!

  6. Still yet to take that trip to Stockholm. Sigh.

  7. Anon10:06--yeah, that's about the generation i'm talking about. those guys did great work!

    just for the record i believe that the "...but there's so much more to learn now!" argument for grad-school extension (stagnation) is effectively rebutted with the observation that Med School takes exactly as long as it did in 1965.