Via Tyler Cowen, comes this graph of demographic shifts in NIH grants, which show a clear trend: older scientists are getting more money.
Cowen also cites the eminent economist Paul Romer, who worries about the effect of this shift on innovation:
Instead of young scientists getting grant funding to go off and do whatever they want in their twenties, they’re working in a lab where somebody in his forties or fifties is the principal investigator in charge of the grant. They’re working as apprentices, almost, under the senior person. If we’re not careful, we could let our institutions, things like tenure and hierarchical structures and peer review, slowly morph over time so that old guys control more and more of what’s going on 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. I’d like to see us keep thinking about how we could tweak our institutions to give power and control and opportunity to young people.
The bad news is that Romer is right, at least in part: young scientists, in general, tend to be a bit more innovative. (If you noticed all the conditionals and hedges in that sentence, please keep on reading.) The ingenuity of youth is perhaps best demonstrated by the inverted U curve of creative output, a well-studied phenomenon in which creativity rapidly increases at the start of a career before it crests and declines. Here’s Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC-Davis who has painstakingly quantified this demographic data:
One empirical generalization appears to be fairly secure: If one plots creative output as a function of age, productivity tends to rise fairly rapidly to a definite peak and thereafter decline gradually until output is about half the rate at the peak.
For instance, Simonton and others have shown that physicists tend to make their most important discovery before the age of 30, which is why they morbidly joke that if they haven’t done Nobel-worthy work before they get married, they might as well quit the field. (The only field that peaks before physics is poetry, with an ideal creative age of 21.) Simonton argues that young physicists and poets mostly benefit from their innocence, ignorance and naivete. Because they haven’t become “encultured,” weighted down with false assumptions and tedious obligations, they’re more willing to rebel against the status-quo. (Simonton rejects the obvious alternative explanation, which is that the creative decline is due to age-related cognitive decline. After all, some academic fields, such as literary criticism, have a peak creative age in the late forties.)
So I do think Romer is right to worry about this slow creep in grant funding to older scientists. However, before we start blaming the staid conservatism of the NIH, I think it’s worth considering the extent to which this shift might be due to intellectual changes within scientific fields. In other words, the changes in funding might be a side-effect of scientific progress, and not an institutional failure.
Let’s begin by considering the differences in peak creative age between different scientific fields. While physics, math and poetry are dominated by brash youth, many other fields are more amenable to middle age. (Simonton’s list includes domains such as “novel writing, history, philosophy, medicine”.) He argues that these fields show a very different creative curve, with a “a leisurely rise giving way a comparatively late peak, in the late 40s or even 50s chronologically, with a minimal if not largely absent drop-off afterward.” (These differences are also cross-cultural: for instance, the age gap between the creative peaks for poets and novelists has been found in every major literary tradition across the world, with novelists getting wise and poets getting stale.) This suggests that the most efficient allocation of grants in these fields – at least if we want to fund innovation – is to fund medical researchers, philosophers and novelists in middle age, when they’re tenured and deeply “encultured”. Sometimes, innovation requires decades of education. That might not be romantic – it’s amazing how many cliches of creativity come from 19th century British poets – but it’s the demographic reality.
What accounts for these stark differences in peak creative age? One possibility is that they are caused by intrinsic features of the academic disciplines. As Simonton notes, those disciplines with an “intricate, highly articulated body of domain knowledge,” such as physics, chess and poetry, tend to encourage youthful productivity. In contrast, fields that are more loosely defined, in which the basic concepts are ambiguous and unclear – examples include biology, philosophy and lit crit – lead to later peak productive ages. Furthermore, the peak of all intellectuals seems to be getting postponed, as the increasing complexity of research in general requires increased time to master. In 1500, the peak of creative output was 25; by 1960, it was 37.
But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore the graying of NIH funding. I’ve talked to far too many young scientists who are exhausted by the bureaucracy of getting money. We need to fund impetuous youth, if only to give them time to grow old and wise.