Famous scientists are making their big discoveries ever later in their careers. A study in 2011 found that the average age at which Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine conducted their key work has risen from mid-to-late 30s before 1905 to 45-50 after 1985. Even more strikingly, whereas one in five laureates pre-1905 made their breakthrough discoveries before they hit 30, now almost none do so.
There are many ways to interpret this. It is good news that scientists are no longer considered past it by middle age, and that the window of creativity is perhaps wider than it once was. (Einstein once remarked that a person who has not made a great contribution to science before the age of 30 never will.)
Other reasons for the trend might include the fact that Nobels have become more experimentally based, which tends to demand experience and access to cutting-edge equipment that younger folk on their own don’t have. And science now has a backlog of great discoveries that didn’t really exist when the first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901—people have to wait longer to reap their rewards.
I suspect the finding also reveals that the research landscape no longer supports innovative thinking in young scientists. There is no reason to suppose that postgraduates and even undergraduates (Lawrence Bragg began the work on X-ray crystallography for which he won the 1915 physics Nobel before he graduated from Cambridge) are any less brilliant than they were 100 years ago. But if they want to get established and secure in the scientific world then they have to start publishing papers rapidly, which encourages them to focus on making incremental advances in safe projects. What’s more, the tremendous pressures they now face—not only expectations about results and papers, but the administrative and teaching duties they must shoulder, and the scrabbling for funding leave little time for thinking about the big ideas.
The constraints on young scientists imposed by these extreme workloads is one of the major themes of a study just published by the Berlin-based Global Young Academy, which seeks to give a voice to “young scientists around the world.” Despite the academy’s global reach, this is a modest survey, based on 650 responses and 45 interviews, but it offers a rare glimpse into the challenges facing young scientists today.
The GYA’s analysis accords with the message that emerged in a panel discussion…