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Study: Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?

Public Domain

“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.” – Max Planck

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck articulated what has come to be known as Planck’s Principle in his 1950 Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers. The idea was born out of his frustration that eminent colleagues, notably Albert Einstein, were resistant to the revolutionary ideas of quantum mechanics that he had introduced.

“That was his sort of cynical quip that, you know, maybe what was needed is for the generation of scholars who had been trained in a different tradition to simply sort of pass away before suddenly of young people could pick up the mantle and sort of push physics forward,” explained Pierre Azoulay of M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.

Planck’s Principle strikes a chord for many researchers, and it has been fodder for science philosophers over the decades. Now, the idea has been put to the test, and the results published in a paper provocatively titled “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?”

Of course, paradigm shifts – revolutions in science, like quantum physics and evolutionary biology – are rare. That means not a lot of data to draw on.

So, Azoulay and his colleagues, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Joshua Graff Zivin, have looked at a more common occurrence: the premature death of a leading scholar in a particular subfield of biomedical research. The team identified 452 cases over a period of about thirty years in which a superstar scientist passed away early. (Lest you start to worry about the life expectancy of such superstars, Avoulay points out that “it’s 452 out of a very large universe of thousands and thousands of scientists.”)

Azoulay and his colleagues monitored the flow of publications before and after the superstar’s death, looking at how much activity there was, overall, and who was contributing to the field.

“We didn't find paradigm shifts. What we found is that those sub fields appeared to expand modestly after they passed away versus before,” Azoulay said. “But the real ‘Aha!’ moment was when we looked at the kinds of authors that were responsible for this modest expansion.”

What they found was that close collaborators of the luminary often faded away, while new researchers drove the expansion of the field.

Azoulay argues that the influx suggests that something is blocking the entry of new people and new ideas into fields dominated by a superstar researcher. But he says they don’t find evidence that top researchers are actively, directly excluding or bullying would-be newcomers.

“What our results imply is that superstars, once safely ensconced at the top of their field, maybe overstaying their welcome a bit,” said Azoulay.

What they do see is that there is less influx when a top researcher is surrounded by “a tight-knit rearguard of close collaborators” who all hold similar ideas, who all collaborate with each other, who all use similar methodologies. In other words, when the field looks to outsiders like a clique.

The dampening effect is greatest when those in the rearguard hold positions of power, such as sitting on funding committees or editorial boards of major publications.

“There are barriers to entry in science,” Azoulay said. “They both exist in the eye of the beholder, but there are also some that are probably real and tangible.”

That suggests there could be structural ways to promote advances in science, without waiting for the death of eminent researchers.

“It's a little bit hazardous to move from our results to policy implications,” Azoulay cautioned. “But certainly it doesn't seem out of order to think about ways in which we can open things up a little bit more.”

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.