Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity
@ Mar 14, 2010
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   * FEBRUARY 19, 2010

The decline of successful young scientists could hurt innovation; tracking peak performance

By JONAH LEHRER

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Aaron Goodman

When James Watson was 24 years old, he spent more time thinking about women than work, according to his memoir "Genes, Girls and Gamow." His hair was unkempt and his letters home were full of references to "wine-soaked lunches." But when Mr. Watson wasn't chasing after girls, he was hard at work in his Cambridge lab, trying to puzzle out the structure of DNA. In 1953, when Mr. Watson was only 25, he co-wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time.

Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.

Youth and creativity have long been interwoven; as Samuel Johnson once said, "Youth is the time of enterprise and hope." Unburdened by old habits and prejudices, a mind in fresh bloom is poised to see the world anew and come up with fresh innovations—solutions to problems that have sometimes eluded others for ages.

When They Were Young

Five scientists who made their marks in their early years.

Archimedes

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North Wind Picture Archives/Associated Press

Some say he was in his 20s when he solved his famous "golden crown" problem in the bathtub, causing him to run naked in the streets yelling "Eureka!"

Galileo

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The Granger Collection

Galileo published his first piece of writing around age 22. He began his experiments on the speed of falling objects in his late 20s.

Marie Curie

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The physicist was just turning 30 when she began investigating radioactivity. She won two Nobel Prizes before she turned 45.

William Lawrence Bragg

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SSPL/Getty Images

The Australian-born physicist is the youngest-ever Nobel Laureate. He won in 1915 at age 25 for his work on X-rays and crystal structure; he shared the prize with his father.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

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Associated Press

The future director of the Manhattan Project made his first important discovery around the age of 23.

Such innovation could be at risk in modern science, as the number of successful young scientists dramatically shrinks.

In 1980, the largest share of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) went to scientists in their late 30s. By 2006 the curve had been shifted sharply to the right, with the highest proportion of grants going to scientists in their late 40s. This shift came largely at the expense of America's youngest scientists. In 1980, researchers between the ages of 31 and 33 received nearly 10% of all grants; by 2006 they accounted for approximately 1%. And the trend shows no signs of abating: In 2007, the most recent year available, there were more grants to 70-year-old researchers than there were to researchers under the age of 30.

"This is definitely an issue we're concerned with," says Francis Collins, the 59-year-old director of the NIH. "One thing I've learned from being in science is that the researchers in the early stages of their careers tend to be the ones with the fire in the belly. They're not afraid of tackling the really hard problems." In recent years, the NIH has responded to this concern by increasing the percentage of its grants going to new investigators, or scientists applying for their first grant, from 25% to 30%.

According to the NIH, much of the shift reflects the aging of the baby boomer generation, which has increased the number of older faculty at major medical schools. Some critics, however, argue that the funding changes also reflect the conservatism of the NIH, as the agency increasingly favors less risky research. Mr. Collins says such criticism is mostly unwarranted.

The age distribution of NIH grants has significant implications for American science. It has become much harder for young scientists to establish their own labs. According to the latest survey from the National Science Foundation, only 26% of scientists hold a tenure-track academic position within six years of receiving their Ph.D.

The aging of science might also alter the productivity of the nation's labs. In recent years, psychologists have begun studying the relationship between age and creativity, trying to understand how increasing experience affects the way we think.

One theory suggests that creative output obeys a predictable pattern over time, which is best represented by an "inverted U curve." The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts to decline in middle age. By the time scientists are eminent and well-funded—this tends to happen in the final years of their careers—they are probably long past their creative prime.

The inverted U curve was first documented by Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist. Mr. Quetelet's study was simple: He plotted the number of plays produced by French and English playwrights over the course of their life spans. He soon discovered that creativity had a sweet spot, which seemed to always occur between the ages of 25 and 50. (The data neatly confirmed Mr. Quetelet's own life story, as he was 39 when his magnum opus was published.)

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Mr. Quetelet's approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of underlying patterns. For instance, Mr. Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it's a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn't done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry.

Why are young physicists and poets more creative? Mr. Simonton argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise. Because they haven't become "encultured," or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they're more willing to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, however, "creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old," Mr. Simonton says.

This research has led some thinkers—such as the Stanford economist Paul Romer, who studies the role of new ideas in generating economic growth—to worry about the long-term implications of funding older scientists. "If we're not careful, we could let our institutions…slowly morph over time so that old guys control more and more of what's going on," Mr. Romer says in an interview in the book "From Poverty to Prosperity." "And the young people have a harder and harder time doing something really different, and that would be would be a bad thing for these processes of growth and change."

But Mr. Simonton and others point out that increasing innovation is not simply a matter of funding the youngest researchers. While physics, math and poetry have always been dominated by their most inexperienced practitioners, other disciplines seem to benefit from middle age. Mr. Simonton suggests that people working in fields such as biology, history, novel-writing and philosophy might not peak until their late 40s.

Interestingly, these differences in peak age appear to be cultural universals, with poets peaking before novelists in every major literary tradition, according to his research.

What accounts for these variations? Mr. Simonton suggests that they're caused by intrinsic features of the disciplines. Those fields with a logically consistent set of principles, such as physics and chess, tend to encourage youthful productivity, since it's relatively easy to acquire the necessary expertise. (The No. 1 ranked chess player in the world today, Magnus Carlsen, is 19 years old.) Because the essential facts can be quickly learned, and it usually doesn't take that long to write a lyric poem, the precocious student is free to begin innovating at an early age.

In contrast, fields that are loosely defined and full of ambiguous concepts, such as biology and history, lead to later peak productive ages. After all, before a researcher can invent a useful new idea, he or she must first learn an intimidating assortment of details.

The decline in creativity is far from inevitable, and many individuals have increased their creativity late in life by pursuing new intellectual challenges. The novelist Thomas Hardy became a full-time poet in his late 50s and wrote his greatest poem at the age of 61. The mathematician Paul Erdos was famous for hop-scotching around his discipline, and his productivity never flagged: He ended up co-writing nearly 1,500 scientific papers, making him one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time. Of course, quantity isn't the only measure of creativity—and some argue that the more mature (in art, for example) do their best work later in their careers because they have greater wisdom and experience. The fall of the creative curve can be postponed.

Another possible factor in the decline of successful young scientists is the institutions and funding mechanisms that discourage the sort of risky research that produces major innovations. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University who has studied the funding bodies that support the arts, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, notes that these institutions frequently become more risk-averse over time. "They become more beholden to special interests and fall under greater political scrutiny," he says. The end result is an increasing unwillingness to support projects that might fail. Mr. Cowen notes, for instance, that the NEA has gone from directly funding "whomever they wanted, with very little scrutiny"—this led to many success and scandals, such as the furor over Robert Mapplethorpe—to a recent focus on Shakespeare, classic jazz and the teaching of poetry in high school. While such programs are laudable, they're also unlikely to produce major cultural innovations.

In recent years, a number of organizations in the scientific community have tried to fill this void. In 2006, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute opened Janelia Farm, a scientific research campus near Ashburn, Va. The ambitious goal, as outlined in its mission statement, is to "offer creative scientists freedom from constraints that limit their ability to do groundbreaking research." It fully funds all of its 250 resident scientists, which means that they don't have to apply for outside grants. Furthermore, the Farm explicitly targets scientists "at an early career stage," modeling itself after other successful research institutions, such as Bell Labs, which benefited from the exuberant creativity of inexperienced researchers.

It's not just non-profits that are borrowing elements from the Bell Labs playbook. 3M seeks out young researchers, fresh out of graduate school, for its prestigious Corporate Research Laboratory in St. Paul, Minn. The scientists don't stay long. Larry Wendling, the vice president in charge of the lab, says his goal is to have 70% turnover every five years, with the older scientists migrating to other research positions in the company. "We encourage people to move because it keeps them excited," Mr. Wendling says. "It's a way of making sure they're always getting new challenges."

The Grand Challenges Explorations Program, established a few years ago by the Gates Foundation, dispenses grants in the field of global health. The goal of the program is to encourage more unorthodox research. Instead of asking applicants to fill out a lengthy application or show reams of preliminary data, the Gates Foundation only asks for a two-page description of the creative concept. These proposals are then sent to a variety of reviewers, each of whom is instructed to pick a single project to fund. Those projects are then given $100,000.

The end result, says Andrew Serazin, program officer at the Gates Foundation, is that many risky projects have been given a chance to succeed. In the most recent round of applications the funding rate of post-docs and grad students—scientists at the start of their careers—was three times higher than that of their established professors. "One of the tragedies of science is that many of the most talented people with the best ideas don't have access to capital," Mr. Serazin says. "We're trying to fix that."

—Jonah Lehrer is the author of "How We Decide" and "Proust Was a Neuroscientist."

 

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