Thursday, September 09, 2010

Scientific and technological innovators are getting older

There is an important article by Benjamin F. Jones titled "As Science Evolves, How Can Science Policy?" Here is the abstract:
Getting science policy right is a core objective of government that bears on scientific advance, economic growth, health, and longevity. Yet the process of science is changing. As science advances and knowledge accumulates, ensuing generations of innovators spend longer in training and become more narrowly expert, shifting key innovations (i) later in the life cycle and (ii) from solo researchers toward teams. This paper summarizes the evidence that science has evolved - and continues to evolve - on both dimensions. The paper then considers science policy. The ongoing shift away from younger scholars and toward teamwork raises serious policy challenges. 
Central issues involve (a) maintaining incentives for entry into scientific careers as the training phase extends, (b) ensuring effective evaluation of ideas (including decisions on patent rights and research grants) as evaluator expertise narrows, and (c) providing appropriate effort incentives as scientists increasingly work in teams. Institutions such as government grant agencies, the patent office, the science education system, and the Nobel Prize come under a unified focus in this paper. In all cases, the question is how these institutions can change. As science evolves, science policy may become increasingly misaligned with science itself – unless science policy evolves in tandem.
Here are a couple of other related articles:

Jones is clearly very good, and has studied the situation for a great deal of time. His explanation must be given respect, and his recommendations follow from his analysis. Nonetheless, I have a nagging doubt that the problem may be different that that which he perceives.

The explosion in scientific and technological personnel is a relatively recent historical fact. Could it be that as the proportion of older researchers increases, the opportunities for younger researchers to have their own laboratories and lead (small) teams decrease, and it is that decrease that is responsible for the decrease in important innovation from young researchers (which seems to be the cause of the overall decrease).

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