This would be funny if it weren't going to be used, extensively, to defend policies which continue to block the transition and advance of younger scientists. A News bit in Nature overviews a paper [pdf] which reports on the number of publications produced by younger and older scientists. From the abstract:
Those who worry about the aging of scientists usually believe that the younger they are the more creative and productive they will be. Using a large population of 13,680 university professors in Quebec, we show that, while scientific productivity rises sharply between 28 and 40, it increases at a slower pace between 41 and 50 and stabilizes afterward until retirement for the most active researchers. The average scientific impact per paper decreases linearly until 50-55 years old, but the average number of papers in highly cited journals and among highly cited papers rises continuously until retirement. Our results clearly show for the first time the natural history of the scientific productivity of scientists over their entire career and bring to light the fact that researchers over 55 still contribute significantly to the scientific community by producing high impact papers.
A look at the paper will give you the confirming evidence. Paper numbers are pretty stable from 50 to 70 although there is a numerical decline. Interestingly the impact measures (top 10% of journals and some citation metrics) decline from 40-50 or so and increase from that point until 70. There would seem to be some obvious selection issues here...
At any rate, the Nature bit interprets these data as if they support the idea the oldsters are just as brilliant, innovative and "productive" in the scientific sense. To my read anyway.
If the mind is the first to go, it doesn't seem to show up in the bibliography. A new study suggests that older scientists publish more than their younger counterparts.
A research team from the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada, looked at the publication record of nearly 14,000 professors and found that those in their 50s and 60s published almost twice as many papers each year as those in their early 30s.
The comments over at Nature are all over this of course. No duh! The mid thirties to the mid fifties is the interval over which scientists transition from postdoc to independent scientist to a well-funded (hopefully), multi-doctoral-scientist group. The PI in her fifties is "productive" in a way that the postdoc in her thirties is not- i.e., she gets authorship on each and every paper coming from her lab group. This reality undercuts any possible application of these data to any real world question of whether "the mind is the first to go" or related. And oh, yes, there will be the related questions.
The survey, say its authors, is the strongest evidence yet that older scientists are at least as productive as their juniors, if not more productive. "We should not underestimate the older researcher," says team leader Yves Gingras, a historian of science.
Right, except this argument will be used in an apples-to-oranges comparison. The question for the NIH at present is whether pushing careers back by encouraging endless postdoctoral training and un-encouraging rapid transition to independent research positions is a good idea. The question is not whether BigCheez PIs at 55 get on as many papers at this age as they did at 35. It is to ask if you get more productivity out individuals who transition to independence and start growing their group at 32 as you do for those individuals who transition at 42! These data do not really address that but I guarantee you they will be applied to this question.
Gingras became interested in the topic after reading that the average age for first grants from the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, rose from 34 in 1970 to nearly 42 in 2004.
[Anthony van Raan, who studies science and technology policy at Leiden University in the Netherlands] says, the research makes a compelling case against mandatory retirement, which is commonplace throughout Europe. "It's better to keep [researchers] and let them work," he says. "They can be very productive."
See what I mean?
Nature does an absolute disservice when they write just about the least defensible interpretation of the reasons for the data.
I just don't understand how the general science journals can maintain their "news" and "opinion" sides in a way that looks more like mainstream media than it does the scientific content* of their journals. Why present the sexiest or most controversial take on something? Why not try to get at the most plausible or most logical interpretation of the data?
*whether there is in fact a disconnect between the way the general science mags report data and the news I will leave as an exercise for the reader.
Disclosure: I have been seriously annoyed at least once in the past by being interviewed for an opinion/news/fluff type of piece. It is my contention that the absolute least representative quote of an extensive conversation ended up being published. It was clear to me from the beginning of the conversation that the journalist was pursuing a particular angle and I tried very hard to disabuse the journalist of the apparent bias or take on the story. The quotation was the thing I said that came the closest to supporting this pre-existing position and least close to my actual position. I sort-of understand when this happens in the general media. Not one bit when it happens in a science journal that just happens to have a newsy/opinion-y side.
This is by way of disclosing why the sort of piece that is the subject of this post really ticks me off.