Do Long-Lived Scientists Hold Back Their Disciplines?

by zdgroff1 min read12th Aug 20196 comments



That's the question suggested by a new paper in the American Economic Review. Here's the abstract:

We study the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their areas of scientific inquiry by examining entry rates into the subfields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away prematurely. Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist. In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8.6% 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. 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. Overall, our results suggest that once in control of the commanding heights of their fields, star scientists tend to hold on to their exalted position a bit too long.

This seems relevant to conversations about life extension. I'm uneasy about life extension research, but one of the arguments I've heard given for it is that when people die, we lose all of their knowledge and wisdom. This article suggests that maybe having people live for longer would hold other sources of knowledge and wisdom back.

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Putting aside the really bad consequences of a world without life extension (people dying all the time, even when they don't want to), how might a world with life-extension technology redefine the meaning of "too long"?

The classic archetype of an "aging star scientist" shows someone getting older and "stuck in their ways", not coming up with brilliant new ideas or collaborating well with younger researchers. But if new technology increases the length of a person's academic career overall, is it not also likely to increase the length of their productive career? To increase their healthspan (intellect included), rather than only their lifespan? Getting more years out of a brilliant mind seems very valuable.

Is intellect healthspan the problem? Would increasing neuroplasticity help?

People develop biases over their lives which will affect their work. You might call some of these biases wisdom or expertise or crystallized intelligence. Researchers develop tools and intuitions that will come to serve them well, so they'll learn to rely on them. And then they start to rely on them too much. Is this a failure of neuroplasticity, or just something that happens when people work in a given field for a long time?

I think a lot of this comes down to social factors rather than star scientist's productivity decreasing with age.

At least in neuroscience, and probably in the life sciences more broadly, PIs who are very influential in a subfield (or who start a new one) tend to be the go to people for a topic and often become the gatekeepers, so work on that topic is generally done in collaboration with them. Junior scientists (even ones trained by that PI) will usually try to establish a unique research focus that avoids conflict with the exisiting star PIs, even if that means they end up working in a less promising area.

I haven't read the linked paper, but I assume that one factor leading to increase in productivity is simply an increase in good people working in a promising research field where the gatekeeper was removed. In principle, this doesn't need the death of a star scientist to achieve.

I'm not sure if these considerations would change how aging research looks from an EA perspective. It's one of the many "rounding errors" that could be considered as side effects, besides the main purpose of buying QALYs and freedom. Moreover, all of these additional considerations, both positive and negative, might be made irrelevant by new disrupting tech and societal/political/organisational change. Examples: cognitive enhancements, AI, research funding management.

I'm not sure if there's a definite answer about how much cognitive decline influences this kind of stuff, but I wouldn't be surprised if "being stuck in old ways" or not being able to understand new developments and innovate are symptoms of neurological old age more than accumulated bias.

There are also other factors that are less related to aging (but which could still benefit from rejuvenation) that play into how superstar researchers hinder the careers of younger scientists (see Gavintaylor's comment). These problems, though, don't need people to die in order to be solved. Organisational improvements would be sufficient.

A simple suggestion to mitigate these problems could already be trialled well before life extension is available. It is probably possible to identify niche field where star scientists are acting as gatekeepers (either from citation patterns or conversations with scientists in a variety of fields) - an agency interested in that field could then simply offer some large and long term grants for work in the field provided that does not involve any of the star scientist or any of his collaborators. Hopefully the promise of substantial funding would be enough to encourage new entrants to the field.

Admittedly, this would be a very confrontational approach that might lead the star scientist to try and block publications or other grants from people entering his field in this way, but academic rivalries already occur via other causes so it should hopefully work itself out. If funding scientific competition like this resulted in similar gains as this publication shows for the death of a star scientist then it is not only a solution to the situation, but also suggests funding competitors could prove more effective than funding the incumbent gatekeepers in some cases.

While old generation dying is one way of getting scientific and intellectual change to be enacted, there are longer-term trends towards reduced gatekeeping that may reduce the cost of training (eg when people prove that they're scientifically competent WITHOUT having to go through the entire wasteful process of K12 + PhD), then this could inhibit the gatekeeper socialization effects of the old generation that prevent the new generation from feeling free to express itself w/o permission (programming, at the very least, is much less hierarchical because people don't need to depend on the validation of an adviser/famous person to get their ideas out as much or gain access to resources critical to experimentation- it just has to work). Similarly, reductions in the cost of doing biological experiments could also inhibit this effect. 

There are power dynamics associated with scientific training and scientific publishing (not to mention that the training seems to help scientists get through publishing - blind review be damned)- and there are SOME  trends towards funding people who do work without needing access to gatekeepers (look at trends in funding from Emergent Ventures, or the Patrick Collision network). I've also noticed that people are growing