New science blooms after star researchers die

As the article aptly quotes Max Planck, the running joke in physics for the last 100+ years has always been that science advances “one funeral at a time”. However, up until the study below came out this informal statement/knowledge was viewed as little more than the gripe of cynical, disillusioned, overworked post-docs. Shockingly, it appears the old joke was spot on. I suppose one can say that the findings are quite unsurprising. In an environment dominated by careerism and profit-seeking, truth is quite unwelcome. If it emerges at all it often takes the physical removal of its opponents to finally be recognized, accepted and further developed.

https://www.nber.org/papers/w21788

http://news.mit.edu/2019/life-science-funding-researchers-die-0829

“…The famed quantum physicist Max Planck had an idiosyncratic view about what spurred scientific progress: death. That is, Planck thought, new concepts generally take hold after older scientists with entrenched ideas vanish from the discipline. “A great scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it,” Planck once wrote. Now a new study co-authored by MIT economist Pierre Azoulay, an expert on the dynamics of scientific research, concludes that Planck was right. In many areas of the life sciences, at least, the deaths of prominent researchers are often followed by a surge in highly cited research by newcomers to those fields. Indeed, when star scientists die, their subfields see a subsequent 8.6 percent increase, on average, of articles by researchers who have not previously collaborated with those star scientists. Moreover, those papers published by the newcomers to these fields are much more likely to be influential and highly cited than other pieces of research. “The conclusion of this paper is not that stars are bad,” says Azoulay, who has co-authored a new paper detailing the study’s findings. “It’s just that, once safely ensconsed at the top of their fields, maybe they tend to overstay their welcome.””

Share