Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Study: Elite scientists can hold back science

Study: Elite scientists can hold back science

Brian Resnick, Vox, December 15, 2015
Max Planck — the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who pioneered quantum theory — once said the following about scientific progress:
A new 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.
Shorter: Science is not immune to interpersonal bullshit. Scientists can be stubborn. They can use their gravitas to steamroll new ideas. Which means those new ideas often only prevail when older scientists die.

Recently, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released a working paper — titled, "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?" — that puts Planck's principle to the test.

Sifting through citations in the PubMed database, they found evidence that when a prominent researcher suddenly dies in an academic subfield, a period of new ideas and innovation follow.

The NBER team identified 12,935 "elite" scientists — based on the amount of funding they receive, how many times they've published, how many patents they invented, or whether they were members of the National Academies of Sciences or the Institute of Medicine. Searching through obituaries, they found 452 of these elite researchers died before retirement. Because science leaves a dense paper trail of citations, publish dates, and author bylines, it's (relatively) easy to track changes in publishing patterns after a prominent death.

Here's the pattern: After the unexpected death of a rock-star scientist, their frequent collaborators — the junior researchers who authored papers with them — suddenly see a drop in publication. At the same time, there is a marked increase in published work by other newcomers to the field:

The NBER researchers also evaluated NIH grants before and after the deaths, and found a similar pattern.

Unlike the collaborators, presumably, these newcomers are less beholden to the dead luminaries. They were "less likely to cite the deceased star’s work at all," the report states. And they seemed to be making novel advances in science:
The new articles represent substantial contributions, at least as measured by long-run citation impact. Together, these results paint a picture of scientific fields as scholarly guilds to which elite scientists can regulate access, providing them with outsized opportunities to shape the direction of scientific advance in that space.
All this suggest there's a "goliath's shadow" effect. People are either prevented from or afraid of challenging a leading thinker in a field. That or scientific subfields are like grown-up versions of high school cafeteria tables. New people just can't sit there until the queen bee dies.

What's interesting is that the deaths seemed to hurt the careers of the luminaries' junior collaborators, the ones who frequently co-authored papers with them but not in a senior role. "The death of an elite scientist has a negative and seemingly permanent impact on the productivity of their coauthors," the study reports. They published less, while outsiders flooded the void.

(The authors caution that gatekeeping by elite researchers isn't always a bad thing. "Gatekeeping activities could have beneficial properties when [a] field is in its inception," granting scientists more room to take risks.)

All of this is another example of how progress in science is confounded by human behavior. We see this in so many ways. Scientists lie about results. Orthey discount insights derived from failures. Science is so obsessed with the rewards of solving complicated problems that it forgets about the simple ones. The field overwhelmingly is biased toward males (experiments have shown "John" gets more accolades than "Jennifer" with the identical résumé).

It's worth remembering: Science may be a noble discipline based on cold logic and rational observation; but humans are animals fueled by emotion and bias. As the NBER researchers conclude: "[T]he idiosyncratic stances of individual scientists can do much to alter, or at least delay, the course of scientific advance."


Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen, Joshua S. Graff Zivin.  Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time? NBER Working Paper No. 21788. December 2015

We study the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their fields by examining entry rates into the fields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away while at the peak of their scientific abilities. Key to our analyses is a novel way to delineate boundaries around scientific fields by appealing solely to intellectual linkages between scientists and their publications, rather than collaboration or co-citation patterns. Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist (relative to control fields). In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8% on average. These additional contributions are disproportionately likely to be highly cited. They are also more likely to be authored by scientists who were not previously active in the deceased superstar’s field. Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas.

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