Science: Elite scientists impede progress in their field until they die

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Does Science Advance One Funeral At A Time?
H/T Nick Searcy

Pierre Azoulay
Sloan School of Management
100 Main Steet – E62-487
Cambridge, MA 02142

Christian Fons-Rosen
Universitat Pompeu Fabra and CEPR
Barcelona GSE
Carrer Ramon Trias Fargas, 25-27
08005  Barcelona

Joshua S. Gra Zivin
School of Global Policy & Strategy
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093

December 2, 2015

Science – Abstract

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 sub-fields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas.

Does Science Advance One Funeral At A Time? – Introduction

Knowledge accumulation|the process by which new research builds upon ideas developed in prior research|has been long understood to be of central importance to scientific progress and economic growth (Mokyr 2002). In deference to Sir Isaac Newton, this cumulative process is often referred to as “standing on the shoulders of giants,” but is conceptualized more prosaically as the way in which researchers in one generation learn from and build upon prior research. Yet the literature is largely silent on the mechanisms that shape this slowly evolving process.1 To borrow terminology from the economic pioneers in the field (Nelson 1962), we know far more about the determinants of the rate than that of the direction of scientific progress.

What guides researchers when choosing between various approaches to study a given problem? Does science evolve according to autonomous laws, or is the direction of science influenced by individuals, incentives, and institutions? Philosophers and historians have long debated the extent to which the pragmatic success of a scientific theory determines how quickly it gains adherents, or its longevity (e.g., Kuhn [1970], Laudan [1977], and their many detractors). The epigraph of this paper encapsulates the jaundiced view, attributed to Planck, that the idiosyncratic stances of individual scientists can do much to alter, or at least delay, the course of scientific advance. Yet, the proposition that established scientists are slower than younger ones in accepting novel theories has received little empirical support whenever it has been put to the test (Hull et al. 1978; Gorham 1971; Levin et al. 1995). Moreover, in contrast to technology development where market forces shape the direction of research effort (however imperfectly, cf. Acemoglu [2012]), the choice of a problem-solving approach in basic research is not informed by clear market signals, and thus necessarily depends on a more nuanced system of non-pecuniary incentives (Feynman 1999; Foster et al. 2015).

In this paper, we test “Planck’s Principle” by examining how the death of 452 eminent academic life scientists alter the vitality (measured by publication rates and funding flows) of the subfields in which these scientists actively published in the years immediately preceding their premature passing. Consistent with prior research (Azoulay et al. 2010; Oettl 2012; Jaravel et al. 2015), we find precipitous declines in publication rates in these subfields, relative to control subfields, when we restrict the publication counts to articles authored by collaborators of the stars. Remarkably, however, these declines are more than offset by increased publication rates when we restrict the publication counts to articles authored by non-collaborators. The rest of the manuscript tries to elucidate the mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon.

Our results indicate that these additional contributions by non-collaborators are disproportionately likely to be highly cited, and to represent their authors’ first foray into the extinct star’s subfield. They also are less likely to cite previous research in the field, and especially less likely to cite the deceased star’s work at all. Though not necessarily younger on average, these scientists are also less likely to be part of the scientific elite at the time of the star’s death.




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